A musical journey of Brazilian “black” music, The Spirit of Samba provides an introduction into the uniquely Afro-Brazilian traditional forms which have served to shape Brazilian music and music culture. Beyond looking simply at race and color lines, the filmmaker does an excellent job of focusing the film on the material and political discrimination experienced by many Brazilians. With footage from a variety of regions in a country larger than the contiguous United States of America, this film gives a surprisingly balanced impression of the way music — primarily samba — serves as a medium through which marginalized Brazilians express their struggles, dreams, laments, religions, and sensuality to create coherent communities within such a large and dramatically stratified society.
Produced and directed in 1982 by British filmmaker, Jeremy Marre, The Spirit of Samba was released in 2000 by Shanachie Records as a part of the Beats of the Heart film series, a collection of films produced by Marre about music from around the world. The film begins in Rio de Janeiro, with footage from the city’s annual carnival celebration, complete with glittery costumes, semi-nude dancers and energetic drumming. The filmmaker quickly contextualizes and humanizes the spectacle by bringing a viewer into the communities where samba and the samba schools that parade each year had their start and continue to call home. The film then travels to the arid and impoverished northeast region of Brazil where traditional samba styles originated, and passes through the city of Salvador where black culture, music, dance, and religion have flourished, despite constant attempts at repression. Finally, the film returns to Rio de Janeiro to discuss the way Carnaval serves as an annual amelioration of the pains and frustrations of daily life among marginalized communities in Brazil.
The film’s footage focuses heavily on images and scenes of music, dance, and community life of the underprivileged in the various regions of Brazil. These scenes are contextualized and balanced by personal interviews and performances by famous singers, popular artists, community leaders, and Afro-Brazilian intellectuals, including Leci Brandão, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, among others. These artists recall their struggle to maintain a focus on voicing the opinions and feelings of the less-fortunate in Brazil, while gaining popularity and fame. They also recall their experiences being persecuted and discriminated against as blacks, as women, and as artists, particularly under the repressive measures imposed by the military dictatorship which was still in power at the time of filming in 1982 (the military dictatorship in Brazil remained in power for 21 years, from 1964 through 1985).
While the visual and auditory quality of the film is clearly dated, the filmmaker does a good job of not ignoring or exaggerating the complex relationships in Brazil between rich and poor, light skinned and dark skinned, urban and rural. The cities and favelas are portrayed in a surprisingly timeless way and the impression one is left with after watching the film is similar to that which remains after visiting Brazil—namely a sense of awe and exaltation of the beauty of the country, mixed with deep sadness for the material conditions in which most Brazilians live. The only fault of the film would be its minor over-emphasis and dependence on narration and the use of voice-over translations, both of which might be attributed to the style of filmmaking in 1982.
The combination of visually powerful music and dance scenes, contextualized interviews with important artists, and an overall balanced portrayal of daily life in Brazil makes The Spirit of Samba an informative and enjoyable film. The interviews and narration, while at times relied upon too heavily, help to illustrate the complex contradictions of Brazil’s musical culture while the simple and uninterrupted scenes displaying music and dance allow the cultural forms to demonstrate their own beauty, as well as the power of black cultural traditions in Brazil.
The full film is available on YouTube (below) and, for people who do not have an hour to watch the whole thing, the film includes some really beautiful clips: samba sung by Leci Brandão (2:27), traditional samba-de-roda from the northeast (22:44), the festival for Yemanjá, the goddess of the sea (25:09), inner workings of a Candomblé house and ceremony (28:07-34:32), capoeira (35:10), and a samba sung by Gilberto Gil (37:50. Seeing as all these clips are tied together with insightful commentary, it's probably best to just watch the whole thing.