Having so far devoted four projects to singer Amália Rodrigues, ranging from a 1990 concert film to a five-part television documentary, director Bruno de Almeida might be expected to have lost perspective on the woman whose 50-year career is synonymous with the dark, bluesy Portuguese song form known as fado, meaning fate. And that expectation would be correct. De Almeida’s latest hagiographic effort diminishes Amália’s legend by purifying it.
The Art of Amália opens with David Byrne twitchily acknowledging Amália’s knack for expressing the “sadness of the universe.” Having established her contemporary street cred, de Almeida skips back to her 1920 birth and plods dutifully through her major professional achievements via a dry voice-over, an impressive array of archival footage, and dispassionate affirmations of her celebrity by a bored eightysomething Amália herself (“All I needed were two guitarists, a dress, and a black curtain,” she says).
Take the title seriously. With a single exception, de Almeida edits out every nonartistic aspect of Amália’s life once she stops selling fruit by Lisbon’s docks and takes to the stage. No mention is made of any husband, lover, or family—although her music overflows with the romance of absence—nor of the decades of dictatorship in Portugal and what that might have meant to her (“I’m embracing all of Portugal!” exclaims a smitten Caetano Veloso in the film’s most spontaneous scene). We only learn that Amália traveled around the world recording slapdash (yet immensely successful) albums of tarantellas in Italy, of rancheras in Mexico. Real life intruded in the mid ’80s, however. Amália recounts how a cancer scare nearly drove her to suicide while she was living in a New York hotel. But she did survive and sing again, for the largest and most adoring audiences of her career as heads of state showered her with awards. Amália Rodrigues died last year, and de Almeida has entombed her accordingly.