French/Swiss director Georges Gachot returns to bricks-and-mortar documentary filmmaking with Maria Bethania: Music Is Perfume, but his approach has both crescendos and diminuendos. In Maria Bethania, an artist’s third act is outlined in graceful stanzas. Deemed a crown jewel in her native Brazil, Maria Bethânia Vianna Telles Veloso is akin to Janis Joplin during her rebellious youth. Today, she’s a tear-jerking love ballad specialist. Beside her as she pens lyric and well after curtain call, the film touches on what it is to be in a constant mode of creative productivity. Mass appeal for this heavy-on-performance doc might not take hold right away, but in time, it’s staying power may be proven.
Shot on 35mm stock, the personifications of Rio and its majestic landscapes are hard to top. Rolling breakers backdrop a man on a payphone, a child in silhouette dances, garbage collectors skimming seemingly endless sands, a bowling pin juggler; and all the while a tune plays with a voice that is quintessentially distinct. The studio-recorded version the same track merges into rehearsal, free from polish or amplifying elements; just an accordion player and pianist accompanying the diva. “Sublime! Perfect!” she says in Portugese after the practice run. Outside the space, you meet the songstress with pink-tinted shades and long, thick dark hair talking about her what it means to perform in front of an audience. Maria Bethânia cherishes her role as a communicator. Immediately, you’re tossed on stage with her as she sings another ditty—this time she’s overtaken by the thousands serenading her—they know this one chapter and verse.
Packaging the film with interview after interview intermixed with live solo performances, you are swayed from side to side. Most times, it’s a gentle breeze, but too much of a good thing rustles one’s leaves. Every song has a melancholic strain. She spoons lines like: “I know my mouth’s still moist from the trace of your kiss.” Gushy the themes may be, they scream softly about love being born and dying an infinite death.
The shooting of this Brazillian icon is done in home-video style. You’re granted backstage access, but only cover inches in terrain. Where is the footage of her as a 19-year-old revolutionary youth in the ’60s, one whose spicy tongue performed protest songs like "Carcará" or "Opinão," prompting her star to rise as a spokesperson against the military dictatorship? Instead, we’re given only the stuff from present-day, of a crooner doting on the moody and murky heard all too often at a favorite loner bar.
Instead of forcing a title down our throats, the director listened to his muse and most likely kept the project untitled until he dug through footage during post-production. You see Bethânia offering her perspective when it comes to music’s instant gratification. She quotes, “Music is like a perfume. It’s immediate, it’s sensorial.”
The performance on and off stage pairs with the stellar shots of buses whizzing by to high up panoramics of the Crayola-colored sky. No musical track is cut-off—you get the entire cookie instead of a bunch of crumbs. Unaffected by TV commercials or music videos, allowing for the length of the song or thought to run in its entirety is daring. Gachot intended for this film to strike as a movement in a sonata would. What is compromised is that because he lets the pace be conducted by his subject; we don’t break too far beyond the topsoil. The ode to the Brazilian blues and its black roots is a start, but why not go beyond a few restless nights only hinted at anecdotally by the cryptic Bethânia? Why does love seem to be theme in every song? Has she fallen hard too may times? We meet mom, but where’s dad?
It’s true that you can take the face value of the film—how this one woman became the country’s favored voice—as a pursuit to peer at. But when the song catalog’s been covered, you are left emotionally shortchanged.
Cast: Maria Bethânia, Caetano Veloso and Gil Gilberto
Director: Georges Gachot
Producers: Georges Gachot, Pierre-Olivier Bardet and Idéale Audience
Genre: Documentary; Portuguese-language, subtitled
Running time: 82 min.
Release: August 29