Fados is a musicological adventure

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      A documentary by Carlos Saura. Featuring Mariza and Lila Downs. In Portuguese and Spanish with English subtitles. Unrated. Plays Frday to Monday, December 3 to 6, at the Vancity Theatre

      Usually represented as mournful, blue-tinged cabaret songs, the sound of Portuguese fado is more versatile than that suggests, and variety of expression and setting is exactly what makes Carlos Saura’s latest musicological-adventure documentary more than a wine-soaked mope fest.

      Watch the trailer for Fados.

      Previously, the aged Spanish director has taken on such pulse-racing forms as opera, tango, and flamenco—and all three in his impressive Carmen. Here, Saura narrows the focus to that peculiarly, triumphantly melancholy music associated with the gritty Alfama neighbourhood of Lisbon.

      In a gigantic soundstage, he sets up bright panels of colour, old film clips, and some great footage of Amália Rodrigues, the singer who revived this ancient style in the 20th century. Against such images, troupes of dancers interpret classic songs (which are identified, although the polyglot performers are not—until the final credits roll, anyway).

      As with any concert film, the segments are of uneven quality. Only one, though, with Brazilian singer Toni Garrido crooning a bland, slightly reggaefied tune amid a gaggle of Swan Lake types, is tangibly bad, while Mexico’s Lila Downs is given an uncharacteristically corny song. Africa-born Mariza, with her close-cropped blond hair, is the face of modern fado, and she gets three on-screen numbers, including the 90-minute film’s most emotional moment: her bilingual face-off with flamenco singer Miguel Poveda on the beyond-emblematic “Meu Fado Meu”.

      Other highlights, along with many wonderful Portuguese guitar solos, include heartfelt visits with Brazilian stars Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque, Cape Verde’s sultry Lura, white-haired fadisto Carlos do Carmo (who comes across as the Leonard Cohen of Lisbon), and the denizens of a nicely re-created taberna, in which drinkers stand up and challenge each other to deep-feeling contests. Here, whoever keeps his eyes closed longest wins—perfect, as it happens, for surviving dictatorships, failed empires, and, of course, faithless lovers.