Like Frederick Wiseman, 1930s-born Brazilian docu filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho (“Twenty Years Later,” “Master Building,” “Playing”) quietly keeps churning out one strong film after another. His latest, “Songs,” is again a deceptively straightforward feature, and looks at such wide-ranging subjects as human nature, diversity and the power and importance of music and love by simply asking a group of Rio de Janeiro inhabitants to talk about their favorite Brazilian song. The result is, to put it simply, lyrical. After its Rio preem, the pic will launch internationally at IDFA, as part of a Coutinho mini-retrospective.
Though the 78-year-old Coutinho has also directed fiction films, co-written screenplays and occasionally worked as an actor (recently in “From Beginning to End”), since the late 1990s, the prolific director has mainly focused on documentaries. His apparently nonchalant style, with its roots in TV reporting, has now become so loose that Coutinho almost seems to stumble upon fabulous people and stories, though in reality they are the result of careful research and selection.
For “Songs,” an initial group of 237 potential interviewees, found by placing ads in newspapers and recruiting people in the streets, resulted in 42 filmed interviews, though only 18 finally appear onscreen. Each person has about five minutes to sing a bit of his or her favorite tune, a capella, and explain why that song is important to them.
The simplicity of the idea is echoed in the backdrop, which consists of a stage with a single chair and black curtains lit by a spotlight. During the interviews, people are framed in medium closeups, though a wider shot at the beginning or end of a scene might show off something of the subject’s personality, through body language, as he or she enters or leaves the stage.
The choices of songs, all Brazilian, might be unfamiliar for foreign viewers, but the stories behind them are universally recognizable. Widower Gilmar, an emotional man, performs a song his seamstress mother used to sing when he was a boy. Stalkerish Sonia still can’t get over her first love three decades later, while German Isabell, who came to Rio to marry a Brazilian who then left her, finds both revenge and peace in a (heavily accented) samba song. Lidia tried to shoot her lover, while Zio mourns the loss of his three “mothers”: his real mom, wife and mother-in-law, who all died in the same year.
Most of the interviewees — diverse in age and background, and only identified onscreen by their first names — choose songs they must have picked up on the radio, though Zio has written his own.
A special case is one of the film’s most unforgettable protags, the lively Dea, who’s convinced that the wrong date was put on her birth certificate because she doesn’t feel like someone who was born in 1928. She sings a tune from the king of Brazilian music, Roberto Carlos, which she once sang with him, adding mischievously: “He was married at the time.”
Popping up throughout are recurring themes of love, loss and desire, all complex emotions that are also the subjects of many tunes. The brilliance of Coutinho’s conceit is that he sets out to demonstrate that people often turn to song when words can’t express how they feel, but he shows this by letting people talk about the emotions that inspired their song of choice.
Tech package is modest but classy. Pic was produced by VideoFilmes, the company of helmer Fernando Meirelles.