Spanish director Carlos Saura has made a career of putting various music and dance styles stemming from the Iberian Peninsula on film in gorgeous studio settings – often without plots to distract from the music. Performers are typically filmed simply and directly in studio settings in front of mirrors and colored projection screens that give Fados (and all his music films) an immediacy and a feeling of watching the music and dance unfold live. He’s most famous for his early 80’s “Flamenco Trilogy” which was released through the Criterion Collection but is now sadly out of print (and VERY expensive to track down). Saura has continued making music films through the years and his 2007 masterwork Fados is one of his very best films.
Fado is singing style that emerged in 19th century Portugal that explores the idea of saudade, a Portuguese word that is called “untranslatable,” but which is variously noted to explore a melancholic longing, loss, or nostalgia for things or people that are gone. Or as Fado singer Mariza put it in a 2009 interview with the Denver Post: "Fado means fate or destiny." With such a slippery definition, it’s no wonder that Saura’s view of Fados veers from the rhythmic samba that opens the film to “Maria Severa, Nineteenth Century,” with hurdy-gurdy and Dickensian-looking period clothes, to Mariza’s updating of Fado conventions, to “Homage to Alfredo Marceneiro,” featuring dancers in front of projections of Marceneiro that then segues into a hip-hop tribute to Maceneiro’s urban poetry. We also get classical ballet dances, famed Brazilian musicians Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso (separately), a family/bar communal singalong, a historical recording of Fado legend Amália Rodrigues, and much more.
In my favorite segment, a 67-year old Carlos do Carmo sings a tribute to the city of Lisbon entitled “Um Homem na Cidade.” It’s shot in a single take tracking shot that rolls slowly backward with do Carmo in the center of the frame performing the song in front of the musicians and a moving collage of scenes and still shots of Lisbon. It’s a deceptively simple piece of filmmaking – one tracking shot, but with the movement there’s a constant change of scenery and introduction of new visual elements creating a kaleidoscopic effect of moving through Lisbon, but it’s grounded by do Carlo’s presence in the center of the busy frame as though he’s personally guiding us through the city he loves (which in a way he is). Equally good is Mexican-American singer Lila Downs, as she sings (in Portugeuse) a melodramatic, tragic love triangle acted out by the dancers in front of her. And Mariza is in some ways the star of the show, appearing in three numbers in the film – fitting as she’s probably the biggest star and international proponent of Fado today.
The film is a masterful work by Saura, who dispenses with the plots that provide the excuses for musical sequences in many of his films and simply focuses on the beauty of the music, movement, and cinematography; no excuses necessary.
- Patrick Brown