A rich, reflective biography on one of Brazil’s most innovative musical auteurs, Dominguinhos never strays far from linearity, focusing almost entirely on the chronological bullet points of its eponymous subject’s personal and professional lives. It’s elevated above more banal biopic documentary pieces, though, by its unique, lucid usage of archival footage and its commitment to teasing out the thoughtful comments Dominguinhos makes on the nature of his life and work as a forró artist. Best enjoyed as a relaxatory aural experience, the film uses its slight stylistic resources to the maximum effect, to tie together its portrait of a place and a time in South American cultural history almost totally unknown to the Anglosphere.
Dominguinhos, the typically Brazilian diminutive styling of José Dominghos de Morais, grew up in the ’40s and ’50s on the outskirts of the northeastern sertão badlands, probably the single most cinematically evocative region of the country for Australian audiences thanks to the lunatic cangaçeiro faux-Westerns of Glauber Rocha and rough, dusty poverty dramas, such as Barren Lives, made there in the glory days of Brazilian radical cinema. Co-directors Marian Aydar, Joaquim Castro and Eduardo Nazarian seem fully aware of this connection, adeptly manipulating the newsreel and historical documentary clips taken in the region with exaggerated film stock scratching, cutaways to pastel-coloured grassy non-sequiturs, and gigantic full-face close-ups on existing wider angle footage. The total effect is initially disorienting, but soon astonishing: the sensory atmosphere of rural Brazil – teeming, sweaty, vibrant – dominates most of the film, and forms the backdrop to the late musician’s voiceover recollections. Especially early on, these memories are basically pedestrian; Dominguinhos found himself in Rio de Janeiro as a teen after some early muscial exposure and a few scrapes, started playing for money, ended up married and a father, and slowly established himself as a popular figure. It’s the confluence of visuality and aural textures in the film, though, rather than any revelatory narrative content, which power Dominguinhos’ role as his own narrator.
The music itself, typically accordion-driven and folksy, is utterly unique: combining melancholy keys with off-kilter beats which evoke freeform jazz as well as more recognisably Brazilian bossa nova forms, its rhythms are strange and impenetrable. Again here, the filmmakers sharply match this hybridised cultural form of expression with others, as stock film from the nation’s troubled twenty-year period of dictatorship highlights the dissonance between brutal police repression and extant remote community customs just as incomprehensible as the music. Throughout, Dominguinhos talks of his own subjective experience with little explicit reference to what’s on screen. The effect is both mystifying, as we are left to ponder the significance of a festival which looks similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead, for example, and uplifting, as the film’s subject conveys his simple passion for his music. Politics and history haven seemed to wash over Dominguinhos and yet leave him untouched.
As Dominguinhos closes in on the present day, and begins to incorporate the man himself in person, it takes on a more sombre tone. Dominguinhos grimaces his way around his apartment, ruefully advising the interviewer that the after so many years, the heavy accordion is “hard on the back”. He also ruminates on his lot: the grandchildren who now sit on his lap, the tutelage he had over the years from other forró legends like his mentor Luis Gonzaga, the beautiful women he’s known. The film the closes on a shot only used once before, towards the very start. In extreme close-up, the dusty bellows of an accordion wheeze open and closed. They look exactly like breathing apparatus, an iron lung for Dominguinhos and a generation of his fans in the impoverished sertão. While the film undersells itself with its A-Z structure and wilfully slight atmosphere, flourishes like this make it an accomplished but more importantly intimate work.