Slick, superficial and with the slightest touch of saudade, “The Samba Poet” displays a keener sense for biopic melodrama than for music-making. Hitting the high and low points of the short life of Noel Rosa — who was, as much as anyone, the father of samba — director Ricardo Van Steen does a pro job of recounting the songwriter’s rise and premature death from TB. But there’s no real passion in the movie, leaving a cool afterglow that will lull buyers in most markets into a mood of general disinterest.
It won’t help pic’s prospects that Rosa (played with subtle vulnerability by Rafael Raposo) is rather obscure outside Brazil and samba circles, and this version, drawn from Joao Maximo and Carlos Didier’s biography, barely suggests the young poet-scribe’s huge popularity in the early 1930s. Leaving a young and gorgeous corpse behind — in light of our recent pop history with Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Gram Parsons, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain — almost feels like a cliche in this dramatization, true or not.
Itchy to see his semi-smutty and colorful poetry set to music, Rosa hangs out with a rough crowd in Rio in 1929 — far from his cushier family surroundings in Vila Isabel, where mom Martha (Laura Lustosa) and father Neca (Rui Resende) hope he can earn a medical degree. Van Steen has a bit of fun with Neca tinkering with some absurd experiments he dreams of patenting, making it easy to see where the dreamer in Rosa came from.
Rosa develops the new samba sound alongside music buddies like Ismael (Flavio Bauraqui), Papagaio (Wilson Das Neves), singer Aracy (Carol Bezerra), Cartola (Jonathan Haagensen) and songwriter Nilton (Milton Filho), whose death from TB early on presages doom for these young artists. Working up much more involved lyric schemes for samba than had been realized before, Rosa becomes a star of the Carnival, Rio’s annual bacchanale, which helped turn samba into one of the country’s major world exports.
Van Steen and editor Umberto Martins’ primary method for conveying the music is to use the songs (arranged by Luis Filipe de Lima) in montage sequences that help bridge time periods, but without suggesting where the music actually comes from emotionally. The closest pic gets to the guts of samba is in a running competition — a long-held Carnival tradition — with rival songwriter Wilson Batista (Mario Broder).
Pedro Vicente’s script finally relies too much on basic melodrama to tell the musician’s life, largely centered on how Rosa gets pretty gal Linda (Lidiane Borges) pregnant and is forced to marry her, while carrying on a long-term love affair with fiery cabaret singer Ceci (sultry Camila Pitanga).
“The Samba Poet” ends up being much too smoothed-out around the edges to suggest the rough, sometimes cruel lives of the streets from which samba was born, and too concerned with standard biopic tropes to achieve something resembling poetry.
Production elements are solid, with lenser Paulo Vainer saving some of his most evocative touches for the affecting, slightly Fellini-esque finale. De Lima’s arrangements of a huge song catalog (Rosa wrote 259) comprise pic’s grandest achievement.