If you want a sense of the glorious emotional excesses that permeate fado, the soul music of Portugal, you need only listen to the legendary fadista Amália Rodrigues, who tremulously immortalized singing whores, weeping guitars, ashes and fire, pain and sin. "All this exists," she sang. "All this is pain. All this is fado."
Rodrigues, who died in 1999, was known as the Queen of Fado, but she has a number of majestic heirs, some of whom perform with tremendous force and feeling in "Fados," Carlos Saura's big-screen film about the musical genre. Much as he did in his 1990s documentaries "Sevillanas" and "Flamenco," this veteran Spanish director has, in his latest, created both a tribute to an art form and a performance archive. Set entirely inside a cavernous soundstage subdivided by large panels, some of which periodically do double time as projection screens, the film has a pleasurably easy, if on occasion somewhat slack, rhythm that can feel at odds with the intense pulse and temperament of the fados.
The film jumps to rousing life, though, with a choreographed cavalcade as performers of different hues, ages and sexes -- some blowing whistles, other banging drums -- march and dance into the soundstage in a nod to the early Brazilian and African influences on fado. Largely thought to have emerged from several poor quarters in Lisbon in the early 19th century, fado was a song of the demimonde. Its first legendary figure, a 19th-century tavern singer, Maria Severa, was known as much for her love affairs and black shawls as for her songs. Itis thought that, like so many other female martyrs from art of that era, that she have died of tuberculosis or suicide. Verdi would have loved her.
Saura has given the film a distinctly historical arc, notably by showcasing both musicians and dancers who look back at the past even as they move fado forward, but this trajectory may be better appreciated by those familiar with 20th-century Portuguese history. The lack of both a voice-over and reams of text of the sort that often accompanies documentaries certainly makes it easier to concentrate on the performances, but it also means that the uninitiated might miss fado's deep cultural and political importance.
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This is more a regret than a strong criticism: above all, "Fados" is a celebration of human expressivity that, with a stripped-down soundstage and some extraordinary bodies, allows you to appreciate how emotion becomes art. And while I would have preferred a little less interpretive dancing, there is no quarreling with a film that includes a recognizable world-music star like Caetano Veloso and the lesser-known Ricardo Ribeiro. Ribeiro, a formidably sized young man with a stirring tenor, appears late in the film to perform a kind of duel with the singer Pedro Moutinho while accompanied by four guitarists who pluck as fast as a hummingbird beats its wings. Each man begins singing while seated, only rising to stand as the notes of the fado lift him higher.