It’s mesmerizing to watch musicians doing live improvisation: bedazzled by the creative flow, you can’t help waiting for them to miss a beat or blow a line. It’s a tribute to the new feature documentary by Cesar and Marie-Clemence Paes that you get almost the same nail-biting sensation watching their film of Brazilian “cantadores” making up songs on the street, with the quick-witted fluency of a Calypso singer or a hip-hop star. The lyrics jump from bathos to insult, from “Though São Paulo steals your shirt/You can rise out of the dirt” to
The itch he has on his behind
Is of a special kind
It’s burning him badly,
Like a red hot chilli
If you sit where he sat
Your arse will deflate.
The last is from a feisty middle-aged woman singing against a macho youth in a competitive play-off in front of a male audience; her opponent throws in the towel.
True to the maxim that the genuinely local is also universal, this study of the hardships of poor immigrants flooding from Brazil’s downtrodden drought-ridden Nordeste to the bright lights of São Paulo leaves you reflecting on the experience of immigrants and asylum-seekers here in Europe. The same themes sing out: hope, loss, rejection, nostalgia for the homeland, pride in your roots, a blend of suspicion and admiration for your new home.
Determined to reflect the Nordestinos’ presence at every layer of São Paulo society, the film meanders among an anthology of characters, from a maid to the mayor. But it’s the singing troubadours who give the film its backbone and its real charm. Frankly, I could have skipped much of the ‘survey’ of Nordestinos in different social strata in exchange for more footage of Sonhador and Peniera, a pair of busker musicians who dominate the film with their artistic finesse and their affectionate banter. These cantadores use their own rich Nordeste tradition of street poetry and music to survive in and to comment on the mean streets of São Paulo; they find singing pays a bit better than labouring on a building site. Back home people are simply too poor to put money in the hat for their own contemporary folklore, hence the migration to the city.
The film’s visual sequences are such classics of the “portrait of a city” genre that they run the risk of being hackneyed. Speeded-up shots of traffic, wipes at metro stations, dealers in the stock market, the radio newsroom, fruit stalls in a street market, a factory assembly line, dogs barking in the slums – they’re all scenes I’ve seen many times before. But it must be said that the 35mm photography is luscious and the soundtrack provides enough originality to carry it off, mercifully free from any commentary and rich in friendly asides to the crew from the interviewees.
Finally, a round of applause for the subtitler of the English version, an uncredited hero who manages to translate speedy couplets in colloquial Portuguese into English that actually rhymes.