03/04/2009 12:00 AM |

Spanish arthouse director Carlos Saura’s vibrant portrait of the Portuguese musical style fado is the kind of loving, even-handed and open-minded documentary tribute too few music genres receive. With virtually no talking-head sequences or black and white photomontages, Fados’s stories emerge organically from the two-dozen performances it features.

And yet story being told amounts to much more than The Buena Vista Social Club’s collected concert footage. Fados takes place on a studio soundstage where walls of color and mirrored panels allow Saura to create a kind of minimalist mis-en-scene for singers, musicians and dancers. In numbers choreographed especially for his swooping, pacing camera, narratives of pain, loss, hope and rejection unite cultural memory, personal hardship and political upheaval.

Fado’s origins are rooted in Lisbon’s port-side working-class quarters of the 19th century. Musically it bears striking tonal and thematic similarities to jazz and the blues. In fact, Fados’s opening Saint John’s Day performance is the same sort of parade-as-cultural-exorcism that closed Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke. These are musics of melancholy, born out of poverty, urban blight and marginalization. Fado was also dramatically reshaped by immigrants from Portugal’s colonies, a stylistic shift evidenced by the incredible range of performances in Fados.

Fado was traditionally played in small restaurants or bars by two guitarists (one Spanish, the other Portuguese) and a singer. As Fados shows though, the genre has expanded to incorporate influences from reggae, rock, hip hop and poetry, and accompaniment by ballet, modern dance, flamenco and breakdancing. Similarly, its subjects have expanded from tales of squalor and sex to incorporate post-colonialism, feminism and political activism — as evidenced here by Fados’s only archival footage, taken from the non-violent 1974 Carnation Revolution.

Saura’s storytelling is all the more effective for eschewing the conventional didactic documentary format. Clashes between fado traditionalists, its younger, racially and musically diverse newcomers and the ghettoizing category of “World Music” all gradually come to the fore. Ultimately, Fados doesn’t idealize its subject, offering its musical lens as a window onto Portuguese history and society, one textured by the deep cracks found in the fragmented social landscapes of every contemporary cultural situation. Fado defies the reductive “World Music” label, but Saura still shows how its stories of suffering and injustice stand for common experiences the world over.

Opens March 6