Seventy-six year young Carlos Saura charmed film lovers with several melancholic dance, music and song styles: flamenco in Flamenco (1995), Blood Wedding (1981) and Sevillanas (1992); tango in Tango (1998); and finally, opera and flamenco in Carmen (1983). Then comes his latest film Fados, a heady mix of dance and melancholic Portuguese folk song rendered by mesmerizing singers such as Mariza and Carlos do Carmos…If you thought as I had, that I had seen all that the wizened genius from Spain could do, you will be pleasantly surprised. Fados is undoubtedly one of his finest films—forget the music, forget the song, forget the singers (if you possibly can!) and enjoy the art of fine direction.
I am forced to recall the US film Woodstock (1970). Millions would remember that wonderful film, but few would recall its director Michael Wadleigh. The gifted Wadleigh not only directed the fascinating documentary film, he was one of the cinematographers and one of the editors of the film. His assistant film director for the film was Martin Scorsese! If you enjoyed Woodstock’s groundbreaking editing, it is important to note that Wadleigh's editing collaborator was Thelma Schoonmaker, who has edited each and every Scorsese movie since 1980. Now why am I writing about Woodstock instead of Fados? It is because, like Woodstock, Fados is very likely going to be discussed in years to come for its endearing music, song and dance, bypassing its vibrant cinematic ingredients. (See the shot of the film above and note the varied perspectives of the same scene, captured through multiple projections, recalling the shots of Woodstock--only Saura does the cinematic flourishes a lot better.)
The first few minutes into the film introduce you to breathtaking effect of the cinema of Fados. You have shadows of live individuals walking as they do on a street (you do not see them under direct light). These shadows fall on a screen where another film image is projected. The present and the past merge. As the opening credits roll, you realize you are being seduced by the kinetic images. And even up to the final shot of the film, you realize that you are under the spell of creative use of shadows, images, mirrors, projection screens and shiny reflecting dance floors. The final shot is of the film camera lens, which is the appropriate mainstay of the film—not the music, song and dance, which merely provides the subject for the director. Even the English subtitles were aesthetically placed in the left corner of the frame, so that the beauty of each shot is maximized for the viewer. The director conveys his viewpoint by using light and shadows that say a lot without words.
Saura has a great ear for music. No wonder he made all these movies on music, song and dance. Go back in history, and you will recall his most famous film, Cria cuervos (Cry ravens) (1975) featured a song called Porque te vas (Because you are leaving) sung by an American singer called Janette who was living at that time in Spain. The song had been released by the singer earlier but few took note of it. After Saura’s film won honors at Cannes, Janette’s song soared in popularity and became a worldwide hit. (Somewhat like Antonioni’s boost to Pink Floyd in Zabriskie Point, even though Pink Floyd was arguably quite famous by the time of film’s release) That was unfortunately the career high for the singer. Today, some 30 years after I saw Cria cuervos during a Saura retrospective in New Delhi, the notes of the song resound in my ears. Fados, like Cria cuervos, is a delight for those who can appreciate good music.
In Saura’s Fados, achievements are many. The film is entirely made on a set, eliminating extraneous sounds such as street noise. The Portuguese icons of song come to Spain to film the scenes—a clever canvas of light and shadows, dance and song, mirrors and projection screens that recall the brilliance of another of my favorite documentary films—Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s Hitler--a film from Germany. Like all Saura’s films there is some politics at play—his work is a cry for Iberian unity between two neighboring nations that never historically trusted the other. In an interview Saura stated that he was deliberately removing artists from their natural surroundings so that they could create “something new”. To Saura watchers, he is continuing his favorite exploration merging theatre and film, without being hemmed in by the boundaries of a written play.
After you enjoy the film, you might like to ask yourself the following questions. Why is the aging cinematic genius obsessed with melancholic music/dance styles? Is he urging his viewers to go beyond nationalism and adopt global perspectives in the very manner the Fado evolved? You get a feeling as a viewer that this old man is communicating through the camera more than what is obvious. He is able to present a melancholic song style with pulsating positive resonance, using all the tricks up his sleeve. Now that’s good cinema.