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Fados resounds with the passions of Portugal 

Spanish director Carlos Saura's performance film showcases a nearly 200-year-old Portuguese musical style

The musical performance film Fados isn’t for everyone, but I know David Byrne will love it. The former Talking Heads frontman has long championed exotic world musical styles, so Spanish director Carlos Saura’s tribute to Portugal’s fado traditions should be like catnip to Byrne. Plus, Saura recorded Fados on a soundstage with a visual scheme often comparable to Talking Heads’ classic concert film Stop Making Sense, capturing performers in silhouette or against screens of high-contrasting colors. 

Fados marks the third film in Saura’s cinematic trio, which also includes Flamenco and Tango. The other two musical styles hint at flamboyant passions in his latest film. As introductory titles inform the audience, fado emerged in the early 19th century when rural Portuguese moved to Lisbon. Many of Fados’ performers hail not from Portugal but its colonies, and the top of the film features an early parade-like burst of festivities with drums and whistles reminiscent of Brazil’s Carnival.

Subtexts of race, class and immigration run through several of the songs, such as the lyric “My black grandmother knew how to read things about destiny in a palm, at a glance,” sung by the imposing blond chanteuse Mariza. Dancers perform in many numbers, occasionally acting out slightly cheesy narratives, including a romantic triangle that turns into a cat fight. Saura captures enormously talented performers in close-up, showcasing the voices or musicianship with intimate proximity.

Many songs pay tribute to the style’s 20th-century standard-bearers, frequently shown in archival footage. A clip of weathered troubadour Alfredo Marceneiro gives way to a surprising hip-hop homage by rappers NBC, SP & Wilson. It’s slightly frustrating how the titles identify the various subsets of fado, but not the performers, who will largely be strangers to non-aficionados. After about an hour, you might be tempted to take a break and check your messages.

Nevertheless, Fados offers an affectionate introduction to Portuguese culture, particularly in a climactic song set in a recreation of a tavern, where the singers (including 20-year-old Carminho) rise from the “audience” for their solos. Despite the soundstage’s artificial setting, Fados offers an evocative showcase for an underappreciated subculture and musical form. Based on the film, fado could provide the perfect soundtrack for a night of dance, wine, sex and perhaps a knife fight.

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