It is a shame that there will never be a fitting English translation of the Portuguese noun “saudade.” The closest we’ve ever come is defining it as a feeling akin to nostalgia, carrying with it the hope of being reunited with the object of said nostalgia and further complicated by the fatalistic belief that this person is gone forever. Saudade is the reason Fados exists as a musical genre. The music of Fado (“destiny” or “fate”) hinges upon saudade, and for this reason it will forever be rooted in Portugal, and more specifically, Lisbon.
Fados is Spanish director Carlos Saura’s masterfully crafted celebration of this almost perfectly bittersweet form of music (in fact, you could say that the Fado is the one musical form that exemplifies bittersweetness par excellence). There is no dialogue in Fados, no plot, and no real story to speak of. Saura seems uninterested in anything but the very basic elements of Fado, which makes their appeal that much more powerful. His film consists of stage performances of various Fado pieces by many accomplished musicians and dancers. Saura ingeniously creates lush, sound-stage surroundings for both traditional and modern Fados, thereby immersing the viewer in a somehow timeless space. This enables the music and lyrics to achieve their maximum effect.
Saura, whose career has spanned over five decades and encompasses nearly every thinkable genre, has consistently treated music as overwhelmingly crucial to the meaning of his work in film. In his first world-renowned movie, Cria Cuervos (1976), he championed the work of American expatriate pop ingénue Jeanette, and her twee “Porque te Vas.” Anyone who’s seen this early masterpiece understands the integral role that Jeanette’s throwaway-pop song played in the film, and how telling it is vis-Ã -vis the relationships of the characters in Saura’s film.
It’s only natural that in the autumn of his career Mr. Saura would devote quite a bit of his own finances and time to making a trilogy of films celebrating the music of the Iberian Peninsula. Flamenco (1995) and Tango (1998) both ingeniously captured the specific mood of each genre of music, and Fados does the same for its subject. Watch all three together, if you get a chance.