If Judge Jesse Ataide were stuck on a raft with Orson Welles, he'd want it to be the young, svelte Welles, not the Welles of The Muppet Movie.
"The Lost Masterpiece"—DVD case
Another masterpiece by the creator of Citizen Kane, F is for Fake, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, and a number of other film classics? Apparently lost forever, It's All True had been relegated to footnote status in the twisty narrative that composed Orson Welles's colorful cinematic career. That is, until the unfinished footage surfaced in the Paramount vaults during the mid 1980s, prompting a reconstruction and restoration of the newly discovered film elements. The remnants were then integrated into a documentary format in an attempt to give the individual (and unfinished) clips some kind of context within Welles's diverse filmography.
Facts of the Case
Several individuals involved with the original production, including actress Francisca Moreira da Silva, crew member Elizabeth Wilson, and Brazilian musicians Grande Otelo and Pery Ribeiro were all interviewed to record their recollections of the failed project, and a vast array of other materials, including audio clips, interview material, and scenes from other Welles films were assembled to try and determine what exactly Welles was trying to accomplish with this rather bizarre experiment. The documentary concludes with an approximately 45-minute rough cut of "Four Men on a Raft," the segment Welles was able to work most extensively on before the whole production was abandoned. This is the first time this material has been made available to the general public. Welles fanatics, rejoice!
As a follow-up to his wildly successful and controversial debut Citizen Kane, Welles set to work on collection of short stories tentatively titled It's All True, starting in Mexico on a segment titled "My Friend Bonito." But after a bizarre turn of events (and despite being busy with the simultaneous filming of both The Magnificent Ambersons and Journey Into Fear), Welles was appointed special ambassador to Brazil, and was promptly informed it was his patriotic duty to spend a million dollars filming his next project in South America as "a sign of hemispheric solidarity." Soon after arriving Welles fell in love with the Brazilian culture, and set his concentrated effort on documenting the vibrant society he found there.
Welles first set out to film the carnivals in Rio de Janeiro, and the footage he shot captures the intense musical rhythms and movement of the frenzied party atmosphere. Watching these scenes, it is apparent that even at an early date in his career Welles had an eye for the savage beauty and gritty decadence that he would later display to remarkable effect in Touch of Evil. But the material that caught Welles's special attention was the true story of the Jangadeiros, a destitute village of fisherman who gained equal rights and financial benefits extended to other Brazilian workers after four of their men navigated 1,650 miles on a raft without a compass to protest personally to Brazil's dictator. The remarkable feat, which captivated the whole country, also captured Welles's imagination. He set out to make a film of the story.
It was at this time that the Brazilian government was beginning to realize that Welles wasn't making a film that was going to encourage tourism in the country, and rumors began to circulate that Welles had Communist ties. Additionally, RKO (the studio backing the project as well as The Magnificent Ambersons) was unhappy with the footage they were receiving from Brazil, and funding was cut. In response, the ever-resourceful Welles set out to make the film using just $10,000, 45,000 feet of black and white 35mm negative, and a rented silent Mitchell camera. It was decided that filming would take place at the actual Jangadeiro village, using the original participants and native people as actors and crewmembers (none who had actually seen a film before). Welles obviously had his work cut out for him.
Ultimately, that is what makes the 45-minute film, titled "Four Men on a Raft," so amazing when it is viewed today. Completely silent (except for the sound effects and musical score added to accompany it), the film is sustained by breathtaking imagery. Welles painstakingly documents the work system and daily life of the Jangadeiro people in a style very reminiscent of Eisenstein's Alexander Nevksy, using innovative techniques to achieve the long-shots and eccentric camera angles he desired. With only scant resources and harsh coastal terrain at his disposal, Welles was somehow able to craft a very technically interesting and visually engaging film.
As a reward for his tireless efforts, Welles was promptly fired from RKO upon his return to the States, and all footage from the film was confiscated. Welles himself admits in some provided interview footage that he began to hire himself out to other Hollywood productions to raise money in a desperate attempt to save the bits and pieces of It's All True, and it set a life-long precedent of trying to finish incomplete projects. Welles's efforts ultimately came to nothing, and after a period of time, what remained of the aborted It's All True simply vanished.
Fast forward to 1985, when a studio executive at Paramount stumbled upon 300 cans of film that turned out to be the missing footage. What resulted was the creation of It's All True, admittedly in a format not necessarily matching Welles's original intent for the footage he shot, but finally making his work available to the public for the first time.
Taking a closer look at the film elements itself, Paramount should be commended for their restoration work on the clips that appear on this film—both the color and black and white footage have been restored to pristine condition, and are vastly superior to many prints of other, more important films by Welles I have seen. "Four Men on a Raft" is particularly pleasing to the eye, as the strong black and white compositions radiate with a startling clarity. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, on the other hand, is merely adequate, but since the viewer will most likely be caught up in the striking visual imagery on display, no major harm is done.
The fact remains that the only misstep Paramount made on this release is in its musical selection. But what a massive mistake it is! When the film employs the sounds of samba and other traditional Brazilian music, the film rollicks along in an aurally pleasing manner. But all too often clichéd and painfully mediocre music cues are added, which unfortunately cheapens the overall effect of the film. Most disappointing is the banal and occasionally out-of-place score added to the "Four Men on a Raft" segment. Luckily the images compensate, but occasionally the music comes dangerously close to sinking the proceedings entirely.
When the film concludes, however, make sure to stay tuned during the credits—a thoroughly delightful exchange between Welles and Latin sensation Carmen Miranda on the finer details of samba music plays over the rolling list of names. Nearly crossing the line between informative dialogue and blatant flirtation, together the two "investigate the anatomy of samba" (Welles's own words) by describing the various instruments and sounds that compose the infectious South American beats. It's an unexpected little gem completing a film already packed full of information.
The notably ugly cover art and interactive menus also deserve a mention, but are ultimately inconsequential. The disc contains nothing in the way of bonus material; perhaps Paramount figured Welles fanatics have ample opportunity to gorge themselves on all the goodies on the Warner Brothers's Citizen Kane release.
So does It's All True live up to it's billing as Orson Welles's lost masterpiece? Not a chance. A collection of beautiful and notable footage with a fascinating history behind it, but I doubt even the most devoted Welles buffs would argue this comes near the level of greatness found in numerous other Welles films.
But if Welles had been given adequate materials and the freedom to make the film as he intended? There are indications another masterpiece could have emerged. But as it stands, what remains of It's All True is a minor addition to the Welles filmography, if a particularly fascinating one.
Not guilty: essential for Welles devotees, of interest to any serious film buff. Tin ear and poor cover art selection aside, Paramount has done cinema a favor by making more of Welles's work widely available.
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