After 51 years in limbo as one of the most legendary of all “lost” films, Orson Welles’ “It’s All True” has emerged in lovingly resurrected partial form within the framework of a documentary about Welles’ entire 1942 Latin American misadventure. World premiered over the weekend at the New York Film Festival and now entering commercial release, this is a film buff’s delight and should score in limited specialized bookings ahead of a long life in ancillary markets.
French-backed docu is essentially divided into two parts. First half-hour effectively sketches the events surrounding Welles’ trip to Brazil to shoot a major documentary as part of the U.S. government’s Good Neighbor Policy at the start of World War II. Nearly an hour is then devoted to the presentation of “Four Men on a Raft,” which was to have been the centerpiece of Welles’ never-finished, multipart docu.
The scene is set by Welles himself in excerpts from various interviews, as well as by numerous collaborators, including lenser Joseph Biroc, assistants Shifra Haran and Elizabeth Wilson, and associate producer Richard Wilson, who devoted many years to the current project before his death in 1991.
Welles was just 26, flush with the acclaim and controversy of “Citizen Kane,” when he left for Brazil literally the day after wrapping his second film, “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
Welles had to rush to arrive in time to shoot Carnaval. The longer he stayed, the more he pushed into territory that pleased neither the bosses at his studio, RKO, nor Brazil’s military regime; Welles wanted to trace the origins of the samba, which led him to the poverty-ridden favelas and to black performers, and he also was drawn to the plight of the country’s poor fishermen.
As Welles confesses onscreen, the entire episode “destroyed” him. In the midst of a management change, RKO ordered Welles to stop shooting. Fired when he finally returned to Hollywood, Welles found his previously golden reputation irreparably harmed by charges of financial waste and an inability to finish his work. Welles cites a curse put on the film by a Brazilian witch doctor when lensing had to be canceled.
While there is considerable interest in seeing the wonderful archival footage that Wilson and his director-writer collaborators Myron Meisel and Bill Krohn have unearthed, the main fascination here is to finally see as much of Welles’ own footage as still exists, much of it having been destroyed years ago.
Offering snippets of colorful Carnaval material and an entire sequence from another intended “It’s All True” episode, “My Friend Bonito,” which was directed under Welles’ supervision by Norman Foster in Mexico, the filmmakers, remarkably , have been able to reconstitute “Four Men on a Raft” virtually intact.
Bearing in mind that Welles never edited the material and intended to narrate the silent footage himself, the result is nevertheless pleasing and represents a crucial insight into the evolution of Welles’ style from studio virtuosity and long takes to location work and montage orientation.
Story recounts the astonishing two-month journey of four fisherman on a tiny raft, or jangada, from Fortaleza, on Brazil’s northeast coast, 1,650 miles to Rio, where they successfully pleaded for social benefits for all Brazilian fishermen. The jangadeiros were national heroes, but when Welles re-created their arrival in Rio harbor, a giant wave overtook their raft and the leader, Jacare, drowned, which invests the entire episode with great poignance.
The images, shot by George Fanto, are reminiscent at times of Murnau’s in “Tabu” and “Moana,” and at others of Eisenstein. The stunning silhouettes of a massive funeral sequence anticipate images in “Othello” and later Welles work. While there is the occasional awkwardness found in untrained performers, much more pervasive is the sense of dignity, a respect for the subjects’ lives and work. This is a respect returned by the local interview subjects, who speak of Welles with reverential awe to this day.
There are narrative gaps, whether on account of material Welles never got to shoot or footage that remains missing. But the filmmakers have honored Welles with their sensitive handling of his beautiful pieces of film, in a way that the Spanish personnel who attempted to assemble another unfinished Welles film, “Don Quixote,” did not.
The ever-present music by Jorge Arriagada isn’t all it could be, proving helpful at times and somewhat annoying at others.
Even if it doesn’t do Welles any good, the “curse” on “It’s All True” seems finally to have lifted, and anyone interested in one of the cinema’s great creators will be thankful for it.