Community and society have always been the key words in the work of Portuguese documentary filmmaker Sérgio Tréfaut, and after an intriguing fictional interlude with 2001's heavily stylized, formalist problem picture Viagem a Portugal, he's back to what he knows what to do best: show and tell the lives of unexpected or undervalued communities. With Alentejo, Alentejo, winner of the 2014 Best Portuguese Feature prize at the IndieLisboa festival, Mr. Tréfaut posits a combination of homage to and investigation on the traditional folk music of Southern Portugal's Alentejo region. "Cante", as it is known, is an unaccompanied choral polyphony sung by groups of (mostly) men or (more occasionally) women (but never of mixed sex), that seems to rise out of the area's dry, parchid landscape like a people standing its ground and expressing its dreams and dignity.
The result of a number of years of shooting with choruses and natives all over the country (dramatically lighted by DP João Ribeiro), Alentejo, Alentejo articulates performances of cante by some of the key groups that perform it regularly and keep the fires burning with "talking heads" interviews that tell of the form's history and meaning, and of its strong connection to land and people. Work, party and protest song at once or in turn, with a role as an escape valve of the daily hardships or simply a celebration of origins, cante's importance is simultaneously demonstrated and explained through voice and song in Mr. Tréfaut's enveloping work, defining the form as a sort of "landless community", an unexplained, invisible but constant throughline that connects generations.
Alentejo, Alentejo isn't your standard talking heads documentary but neither is it a straight-forward musical essay - it lies somewhere in the middle, music and speech alternately illuminating and clarifying each other, in a hybrid form that can occasionally be jarring but is never gratuitous. If anything, it's a somewhat shapeless film, a project that seems to be merely an excerpt of a longer story, a piece of something that neither begins or ends there - and that sense of "never ending story" is actually more than appropriate for a film that deals with a longstanding tradition that remains improbably alive, that comes from time immemorial and seems to want to go on for an unforeseeable future, as seen in the choral group of young men whose unlikely take-up of cante in the age of smartphones and YouTube works as the film's final link. Alentejo, Alentejo says a lot about Portugal - past and present - without ever needing to leave the one region it apparently deals with.
Director, screenwriter and producer Sérgio Tréfaut; cinematographer João Ribeiro (colour); editor Pedro Marques; production companies Faux and Casa do Cante
Screened April 24th 2014, São Jorge 1, Lisbon (IndieLisboa 2014 premiere screening)
Alentejo Alentejo (long trailer HD) EN version from Faux on Vimeo.