Maria Bethania: Music Is Perfume

A documentary by Georges Gachot. In Portuguese and French with English subtitles. Unrated. Plays Friday to Sunday, July 24 to 26, at the Vancity Theatre

A monumental figure in Brazilian music receives at least some of her due in Maria Bethí¢nia: Music Is Perfume. The Swiss-made documentary sticks to the musical side of the best-known female exponent of the 1970s movement known as tropicália, and that works fine, as the silver-haired diva has plenty to say in that department—and some choice words about her art and her still-struggling nation.

Watch the trailer for Maria Bethí¢nia: Music Is Perfume.

Filmmaker Georges Gachot, best known for his portrait of volatile (and similarly private) pianist Martha Argerich, follows Bethí¢nia through rehearsals and recording sessions, in which there are revelations about her almost chemical relationship with great songs, often by stellar colleague Chico Buarque or deathless inspirations from the past, like Antí´nio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes.

A reticent yet self-involved subject, she slowly warms to the camera, making observations about the melancholy nature of even her most upbeat music (“Samba is a sadness that cradles us,” she quotes from one tune), and she recalls the unique atmosphere of her birthplace, Bahia. In that heavily Africanized seaside corner of the country, there are memorable visits with her famous brother, Caetano Veloso—probably the tropicálista most popular abroad—and their big-hearted mother.

Gachot sometimes goes intriguingly off-subject, as when we witness night crews cleaning up Rio’s party-littered beaches. It’s hard to say whether he did the right thing by ignoring her personal life (i.e., sexuality in a repressively Catholic environment), but it surely wouldn’t have hurt to put in a little more historical context so the rest of the world could better grasp Bethí¢nia’s role as the Joan Baez of Brazil.