Movie Review - Documentary 'Fados' Spotlights Portuguese Ballads

"Fados," Carlos Saura's tribute to the Portuguese music genre, features performances by Toni Garrido, center.
"Fados," Carlos Saura's tribute to the Portuguese music genre, features performances by Toni Garrido, center. (Zeitgeist Films)
Friday, April 10, 2009

A documentary that doesn't bother to explain anything; a concert film with interpretive dance; MTV for world-music fans: Director Carlos Saura's "Fados" is all those things, but above all it's a tribute to fado, the traditional Portuguese ballad form that allows singers to pour their hearts out to the accompaniment of rich, warm guitar. The movie, set entirely on a beautifully lit soundstage filled with musicians, dancers, mirrors and projection screens, presents some of the country's most acclaimed fadoistas, singing tributes to the art form and some of its greatest legends.

That you very likely know nothing about who those legends are concerns Saura not at all; made for aficionados, "Fados" is virtually context-free. Archival footage, Portuguese song titles and (presumably) epochal duets are shown, with nary an explanation to be seen. Luckily, the music itself is gorgeous, and Saura's camera is put to good use capturing not only his fadoistas but a number of extremely photogenic, sinuous dancers.

Does this all make for a good movie? It sort of depends on your tolerance for beautifully composed shots of singers emoting with their eyes closed. There's certainly unfettered passion flowing through each one of the nearly 20 musical numbers in "Fados," but with nearly every song pitched at the same overwrought level, you may find yourself drifting away from time to time -- only to be pulled back by a particularly lovely turn of phrase, an unexpectedly graceful dance move or an instrumental flourish by the movie's virtuosic musicians. And once in a while, "Fados" will throw you a musical curveball: Some Afropop-accented guitars, an unexpected move into Continental hip-hop or an intensely rhythmic instrumental with dancers leaping beautifully around a bonfire.

But "Fados" never strays too far from its bread and butter for long and ends with a group of fadoistas assembled in a cafe, trading verses of heartbreak, misery and loss in a sort of can-you-top-this? competition for the deeply depressed. "I cry tonight," sings one woman in lush tones, "for the love I am drowning in." All these singers are drowning in love, and they're all crying tonight. That is fado.

-- Dan Kois

Fados Unrated, 88 minutes Contains nothing objectionable. In Portuguese with English subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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