Burt Sun and Andre Constantini’s docu about Bel Borba, the “people’s Picasso” who gifted his 500-year-old birthplace of Salvador, Brazil, with a staggering number of his artworks, explores links between the artist, his oeuvre and his city. A vibrant catalogue of his outdoor pieces presented in context with an exhaustive portrait of Borba as a boundlessly energetic, iconoclastic creator, the docu ties itself too tightly to its subject, mimicking forms and rhythms it never fully makes its own. Pic bows today at Gotham’s Film Forum, where Borba’s richly varied output and dynamic personality may paint over its structural flaws.
The artist’s effervescent imagination finds expression in a wide range of media. The exteriors of houses in poor neighborhoods and concrete walls throughout Salvador blossom with mosaics, and the filmmakers chronicle the seemingly slapdash way in which he breaks up tiles to shape free-form snatches of city life. An airplane serves as a flying black-and-white canvas, and painted sails adorn restored antique boats.
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Borba concocts a lion lazing on a zookeeper’s house, fashions dogs out of soda bottles and rhinos out of recycled wood. Teams of welders follow his chalk outlines to cut out treelike shapes in rusted metal. And in one of the film’s most stunning images, a geometric sculpture, which had been constructed and then lowered into the sea, is later lifted by crane, colorfully encrusted with creatures living and dead. Cranes also lift up Borba himself as he paints stripes and faces on the concrete skeleton of an abandoned building.
Ceaselessly creating, as lively at rest as in motion, the artist dominates the docu, his self-explanatory narration filling out all audio spaces not already occupied by strains of Brazilian folk music as well as compositions created for the film, some by helmer Constantini himself. Never at a loss for words, Borba constantly and comfortably expounds on life and art. His is the film’s sole talking head, and he happily interacts with people around him, recounting, for instance, how a woman’s shout (“Make a fish!”) resulted in the inclusion of a fat flounder in a non-oceanic mural. Given the filmmakers’ reluctance to cut into Borba’s flights of fancy, though, a less-is-more approach would have been advisable.
The filmmakers claim they structured their docu like a piece of music, with different movements; granted that, a certain scene of dream-state creation, in which a sped-up Borba etches a rapid succession of compositions in clay, could represent a scherzo. But the scene drags on too long without fitting in rhythmically with what precedes and follows it. Similarly, the helmers’ attempts to imitate mosaics in fragmented images or chronicle a piece’s creation via split-screen seem somewhat hit-or-miss. It’s a creative spontaneity that feels more effective for Borba’s purposes than for the filmmakers in their laborious editing process.