In Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America, director Rodrigo H. Vila returns again and again to a close-up of a clock, like he’s remaking High Noon instead of weaving together an unpersuasive hagiography of a beloved Argentine folk singer.
Mercedes Sosa rose from poverty to become an influential opponent of President Jorge Rafael Videla’s military dictatorship, finally seeking refuge in Europe from 1979 until the regime collapsed in 1982.
The footage of Sosa seems to be entirely archival — she died in 2009 at age 74 — but Vila enjoyed expansive access to her family (Sosa’s son, Fabián Matus, is credited with “Idea and Guest Appearance”) and musical collaborators (David Byrne is the only talking head likely to be recognizable to viewers who don’t follow South American music).
Alas, all his film can do to make its case for Sosa’s significance is trot out subjects who compare her to Joan Baez, Ella Fitzgerald, and, most puzzlingly, “Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney in one,” without elaboration. The footage most likely to give the uninitiated some sense of why Sosa is so adored — that of her actually singing — is invariably truncated mid-performance. We never hear her complete a song. Translating lyrics is always a dicey proposition, and my Spanish isn’t strong enough to judge whether the English subtitles over the performance clips are overly literal, merely tin-eared, or deliberately Dadaesque, but their effect becomes risible.
We may never know what “Like bread, tasty to sing/In the eaves of my mind with the cicadas” means, but it seems a safe assumption that something, and possibly everything, has been lost in translation.