From where I sat, the San Diego Latino Film Festival peaked early. (Probably the whole year did.) The first film I saw, on opening night, was my most anticipated film, Carlos Saura’s Fados. It turns out I underanticipated it. My immediate response at the outset was something along the lines of here we go again. A spacious and spare studio, translucent partitions, process screens, backdrops, mirrors, colored lights, silhouettes, the full arsenal of stage tricks. What he did for the art of flamenco and tango in films called Flamenco and Tango, he was now going to do for that soulful Portuguese folk song, dating back to the first quarter of the 19th Century, the fado. And good enough. Let’s go. But long before the end of it my response had evolved into something very, very, very, very, very rare for me at a new movie, something evoked by neither Flamenco nor Tango, something as plain and simple as I’ve got to get the DVD.
The seed had been planted as early as the first vocal number, after a couple of introductory instrumentals by a percussion ensemble and then a string duet. A catchy upbeat tune, it was, by a svelte and elegant chanteuse with skull-clinging short white hair, exercising a magnetic attraction on a bright-eyed male dance partner. As soon as the song ended, I wanted to replay it. Quintessential DVD response. The singer would come out for an encore much later on, and I would learn in the closing credits that this mixed-race Mozambican goes by the single name of Mariza. I would have to learn elsewhere that she is one of the key keepers of the fado flame, inherited from the late, great Amália Rodrigues, who in Fados can be seen fleetingly, spectrally, in black-and-white archive footage. Saura is characteristically uninformative as to the names and identities, let alone reputations, of the performers. These, a little research will show, come from, besides Mozambique, as far afield as Cape Verde (the single-named Lura), Brazil (Chico Buarque, Toni Garrido, Caetano Veloso), and Mexico (Lila Downs, whose triumphant song of romantic rivalry, acted out by three sinuous dancers, I likewise wanted to replay immediately). Plainly, this is not pure, or puristic, fado, but cross-pollinated fado, even including a hip-hop interpretation, which might guiltlessly be skipped over on DVD. The title, take note, is plural, where Flamenco and Tango were not. Speaking as one whose expertise in the field is limited to once having been taken to a fado bar in Lisbon and once having been given a fado album, I can attest that the degree of musical purity in the film does not matter. It is what it is. The music is music.
The greater emphasis on song than on dance perhaps converts it, in a sense, into the most traditional movie musical of Saura’s multiple contributions to the genre. Yet it remains unclassifiable. The festival programmers filed it as a documentary, but I don’t know. Is The Hollywood Revue of 1929 or Paramount on Parade a documentary? Is Invitation to the Dance or Black Tights a documentary? Fados documents nothing other than itself. It is not a concert film. It does not take you through rehearsals. It offers nary a glimpse behind the scenes. It interviews no one. It supplies no narration and only the briefest printed text at the start and the tersest chapter headings throughout. It is arguably a kind of musical variety show, without a wisp of backstage plot, each separate number specially designed for the screen and organized around a unifying theme, to define fado, stretch the definition, chart the development, trace the influence, scope out parallels, pay tribute, and, in the grand and glorious finale, relocate it in the urban bar where it flourished, put it trustily into the mouth of the next generation (namely the single-named Carminho, adorably still wearing braces on her teeth). “Variety” also would be very much the word for the endlessly inventive presentation, the mixing-and-matching of the above-mentioned tricks, always with Saura’s selective eye, steady hand, solid footing. Whether he chooses at any instant to focus on faces, fingers, feet, or full bodies, his choices inspire absolute faith. Forget pure fado; this is pure cinema, luminous, molded, cohesive, flowing, rhythmic, mesmeric. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Next night, Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light was not so easy to warm up to. As a matter of fact, the domestic drama of marital infidelity set in the strict, German-speaking Mennonite community of Chihuahua, Mexico, exudes an almost Scandinavian chill, specifically a Dreyer-esque severity and self-discipline (to say nothing of his Lutheran rectitude and sense of personal responsibility), characterized by, among other things, front-and-centered compositions, long takes, a clock-ticking tempo. The pace is not merely measured; it is measured at inordinate length, two hours and twenty minutes of heavy-hanging time. The outward stoicism of the farm folk, though, seems to conceal a well of passion: the father of the family, left behind at the breakfast table, crumples into insuppressible sobs, rather as if Grant Wood’s Gothic American had melted into a Francis Bacon. Ah, the mystery of the human heart — a mystery strongly underscored by the indistinguishable physiques and personalities of the wife and the other woman. What, apart from an Agnes Moorehead hatchet nose, does the desired Marianne have that the rejected Esther does not?
Reygadas, retaining all the rigor of his Battle in Heaven and adding a healthy dose of tact and taste, exhibits an artist’s eye, an unglazed eye, an unglutted eye, such that faces, clothes, decors, landscapes, what-have-you, are seen afresh, fully registered. A prolonged smooch in perfect profile could well make you question whether you have ever before seen people on screen really smooching. Thomas Edison’s legendary The Kiss can’t have had a more startling effect on the innocent onlookers of 1896. Then, too, Reygadas springs just enough surprises, not simply to enrich the main motif of human-heart mystery, but to pull you through the longueurs. You never quite know what awaits: the ecstatic release, for instance, of a round-and-round 360-degree pan when the stolid farmer, buoyed by a pop song on the radio and by the thought of soon seeing his inamorata, drives his truck in tethered circles. And surely the last thing you’d expect to see on the entertainment center installed inside a van in a café parking lot in rural Mexico would be an unsubtitled video of Jacques Brel in concert. Occasional sun glare spotting the camera lens, as though we’re suddenly in cinematic vogue circa 1969, could be counted as a flaw in such a flinty façade. And it might be judged ill-advised to attempt, in a film already evocative of Carl Dreyer, to pull off the very same turn-back-the-clock miracle as in Ordet. But these are cavils. The prevailing coldness is not a cavil. It’s a positive invigoration.
After those, the rest, or at any rate the rest that I saw, were just a bunch of films. That sounds a tad harsh for a bunch of films that provided a vacation from the bunch of films at the commonplace multiplex, that took me far away, that saved me the time and trouble of air travel. I’m grateful to all of them, but to two above all. Fados and Silent Light spoiled me.