Curiosity and openness have been one of the key constants in the career of Brazilian singer and songwriter Gilberto Gil. In the mid- to late-1960s, Mr. Gil was, with Caetano Veloso, the prime mover behind the revolutionary Tropicália movement, a melting pop of cosmopolitan pop music and local folk traditions that extended from music into other arts, combining "high" and "low" culture, native tradition and colonial influence to create a brand new, exclusively Brazilian cultural identity. Tropicália changed Brazilian art forever and, though Mr. Gil remained an important artist and songwriter ever since, with a stint as minister for culture between 2003 and 2008, his career never again reached the same creative peaks of that period, unhelped by his forced early 1970s exile in Great Britain after he fell foul of the military dictatorship that had taken over.

     Curiosity and openness are also the traits of the actual journey Mr. Gil took for this documentary by Swiss director Pierre-Yves Borgeaud, traveling in search of the way other former colonial countries have meshed their native cultures with incoming Western influences. Starting out in Brazil and looping back to his native country by way of an extended stay in Australia and a shorter stop in South Africa, Viramundo follows the artist's travels as he learns how local cultures are fighting back assimilation by harnessing the power of modernity to create a through-line to the past, with music as a universal language readily shared.

     For all the exposure Viramundo gives to those struggling aboriginal cultures' reclamation of the ground lost to decades of colonisation, though, the film is a strangely inert, distant object, merely skimming through them rather than stopping to absorb them. The film's first stop abroad is in Sydney to meet Peter Garrett, the former singer for Australian rock band Midnight Oil who has traded in the microphone for the political bench; this merely heightens that a lot of what happens in Viramundo may come down to mere photo-op posturing. Mr. Gil's background may see him jam or play with local musicians, but nothing really comes out of it other than mostly perfunctory collaborations that fall well short of any cultural meeting. It's only in the Brazilian segments - and in a moment where his percussionist and a South African musician show each other how the same instrument is used differently in each culture - that some genuinely thrilling music comes up.

     Mr. Borgeaud structures everything with the marvel of someone who has had his eyes open to things he'd never ever thought of, a typical first-world cultural tourist dazzled by exoticism and wanting to share just how much these people are standing up for ourselves. The film never stoops to condescension but does skirt it dangerously, and the central device of looking for a common thread connecting Brazilian, South African and Australian aboriginal cultures' evolution is not really followed through. While there is a genuine film to be made from the stories and songs Mr. Gil learned and shared in this trip, and there's no denying that his curiosity and openness to the bigger world shines through Viramundo, what Mr. Borgeaud has done is essentially a paean to the curiosity of its star, rather than a film genuinely appreciative of the richness he finds along the way. We return from the trip none the wiser than when we left.

Director: Pierre-Yves Borgeaud
Screenplay: Emmanuel Gétaz, Mr. Borgeaud, from an idea by Mr. Gétaz
Camera: Camille Cottagnoud  (colour)
Editors: Daniel Gibel, Mr. Borgeaud
Producers: Mr. Gétaz, Frédéric Corvez, Clément Duboin  (Dreampixies and Urban Factory in co-production with Swiss Television RTS SRG SSR and Momentum Production)
Switzerland/France, 2012, 93 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, August 6th 2013

VIRAMUNDO - A musical journey with Gilberto Gil (Official trailer) from momentum_prod on Vimeo.


Popular Posts