The Art of Amália
Screenplay : Bruno de Almeida and Frank Coelho
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2000
Bruno de Almeida's The Art of Amália is a documentary about the extraordinary 60-year career of the Portuguese singing sensation Amália Rodrigues, who died in October 1999, a week before the completion of the film. After first gaining fame in her native Portugal by singing the Fado, a traditional form of Portuguese music that stresses the hardships of life through lament, she expanded her fame worldwide, adding theater and film appearances to her singing career while earning unparalleled acclaim in Italy, France, Spain, Mexico, Japan, and the United States, just to name a few.
De Almeida's documentary is less an analysis of Rodrigues' life as it is a celebration of her career. The director, who was born in Lisbon but did not become familiar with Rodrigues' career until after seeing a 1990 performance in New York, is unashamedly enthralled with his subject (he has now made four films about Rodrigues and jokingly refers to himself as her "private filmmaker"), which is reflected in the documentary. With the exception of a brief discussion of Rodrigues' flirtation with suicide in the mid-1980s when she was diagnosed with a tumor (it was later removed through surgery and she recovered fully), the film is completely free of anything negative. Rather, it plays along a strict historical trajectory of success, documenting Rodrigues' escalating achievements throughout the years and across the globe.
Rodrigues herself is the only person interviewed in the film, with the exception of a few archival interviews with various composers with whom she worked, all of whom are laudatory, as well as a brief, praising introduction by musician David Byrne, the one-time lead singer of Talking Heads. In this way, the film is thoroughly one-dimensional because we don't get a sense of who Rodrigues was or what her music meant from anyone other than her and the scripted narration by John Ventimiglia, which is constricted to doing little more than listing off her sold-out concert appearances and best-selling recordings.
Yet, the film is surprisingly compelling. Although I was at all times completely aware of how The Art of Amália is little more than a cinematic love letter to its subject, I was still entranced while watching it because it is filled with footage of Rodrigues doing what she does best: singing. There is a reason she sold so many albums, filled so many concert halls, and earned praise from every corner of the globe. Simply put, she was an amazing performer who put her heart and soul into singing so that it grabbed and held the listener. Once her beautiful, melancholic voice reaches your ears, it is hard to deny its impact.
The film contains bits and pieces from some 70 different songs performed by Rodrigues, most of which are presented through archival film and video footage spanning her entire career. These sections of the film are the most intriguing and enjoyable as they allow an unadulterated view of the power of this magnificent performer in a variety of settings. Despite her changing to various musical styles throughout the years, her passion shines through all the same, illustrating why her fame was so immense.
In her interviews, Rodrigues is frank and up-front about her success; there is little indication of humility, yet neither is she bragging. It is in these moments that we can catch a flash of kind of complexities that are, for the most part, not brought out through this documentary. Near the end, she makes an interesting statement about how she thanks God for her extraordinary career, yet also asks His forgiveness for not enjoying it more. As the documentary presents it, her career was nothing but enjoyment, a constant parade of applause, celebration, and awards. Yet, in these small moments, Rodrigues allows a tantalizing glimpse of a more complex portrait, perhaps one that de Almeida will capture if he ever decides to make a fifth film about her.
©2000 James Kendrick