Genre: Historical Drama/Music Drama
Year Released: 1988
Running Time: 94 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 16+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: The Last Rumba of Papa Montero, Abdias do Nascimento, Music of My Heart, In The Heights, Black Orpheus, Samba, Chico & Rita
-This movie was part of a 2-DVD set about Afro-Brazilian leaders along with Abdias do Nascimento, but they are unrelated films.
-Natal Da Portela was a real-life person who lived from July 31st 1905-April 5th 1975). His real name was Natalino Jose do Nascimento and was born in Queluz, Brazil. He was survived by three children and the Portela Samba School he founded as well as bankrolled still runs to this day. The Portela troupe is currently the record-breaking 22-time Carnival champions and has 52 honors combined across Brazil. It’s even still run in Madureira in Rio de Janeiro.
-This film was directed by the late Paulo Cesar Saraceni who died in 2012 at 78 years old. Some of his other works include Traveller, O Gerente, and The Murdered House to name a few.
-Natal Da Portela made an appearance at the 1988 Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.
-Disney Fan Bonus: Maria Elisa is played by acclaimed Brazilian actress and singer Zeze Motta. Did you know that she got to do some dubbing work for two different Disney movies during their Renaissance Era? Motta was the dub voice of Ursula from The Little Mermaid as well as singing a Portuguese cover of “Circle of Life” from The Lion King in the Brazilian audio tracks of those respective films. Yes, even I couldn’t believe how that actually happened with her career given how she hasn’t done many productions outside of her home country.
We’re going back to Brazil. That’s one country where I certainly covered a good amount of films from different genres. I’ve reviewed a couple of documentaries from there and even an animated movie from that South American country. Not only that but most Lusophone movies I’ve reviewed on the blog came straight from Brazil and I haven’t even seen a Portuguese production (as in the country) until this year. Interestingly enough, I noticed that I’ve watched a good deal of music-related projects on here even recently. I’ve seen films involving Cuban music (The Last Rumba of Papa Montero and Chico & Rita), Congolese music (Felicite), and that’s not even counting the documentaries I’ve featured on here. This time around, I get to check out a music biopic involving someone rooted in samba. I had little experience in that genre unless you count me playing Samba de Amigo on the Dreamcast back in the day and even then that’s REALLY debatable at best given the songs you could play. I guess if I could see works based on rumba, Cuban jazz, tango, flamenco, candombe, or even African heavy metal, then samba should be in the conversation at some point.
Let’s take a look at this piece of Brazilian musical history.
Natal Da Portela is a biopic of the samba school financier of the same name. The story starts out in the favelas (the Brazilian term for “slums”) of Northern Rio de Janeiro in 1923. People are busy living life, but also finding happiness in the samba music scene. The samba musicians dress snazzy, everyone sings, and the fans debate their local scenes compared to those in other cities or favelas. Natal loves the music and has family associated with the scene such as his cousin Paulo who is a guitarist, singer, and composer of that kind of music. When he was younger, he would get into trouble, but he straightened up quick after his father died in his young adulthood. Per his dying father’s request, he’s told to get married and to work in the railroads to directly replace him in that same position. Natal wanted to be anywhere but the railroads and things got a lot worse when he falls into a shaft underneath the train tracks which severely damaged his right arm. While being (mis)treated in the hospital, his arm contracts gangrene which gives him excruciating pain, and the infection is so bad that he’s forced to amputate it. This hinders his employment prospects by being a one-armed man and his wife is expecting a child. Despite not following in his father’s footsteps, he decides a plan to give back to the community by opening up the first-ever samba school in all of Brazil called Portela. This becomes a hit in the community although he was able to fund it through some questionable means such as “bicho” gambling (an illegal lottery involving numerology, animal symbolism, and TONS of mobster connections), but it does pay off for Paulo as well as the students and musicians at the school. Natal goes on with life but deals with so many issues with his family, criminals, and those at the Portela school. Despite his charitable donations to the school and where he grew up, life certainly fluctuates for him.
I do my best to surprise myself with different movies I would’ve never thought about seeing, but Natal Da Portela was a surprise. There was certainly an educational aspect given how little I know about samba or the history of Brazilian music. The music certainly caught my ears and they certainly had talented musicians on board for this movie. I don’t know if those were traditional songs or made just for this movie, but the soundtrack certainly was a plus given how important music played in the film. The production wasn’t groundbreaking, but it was shot well. yes, it was made in 1988, but it has aged decently. The lighting worked and there were some creative scenes despite the smaller budget like the nightmare with the masked people or the “dancing” flags during one musical number. The acting was very good and Milton Goncalves had a wide range of emotions from seriousness, some playful humor, agony, and immense range depending on the scene as the title character. There was a creative aspect in the ending where his ghost briefly narrates over a (then-)modern Carnival scene talking about his death in 1975. The parts where he’s beefing with Davi were intense with his screaming with pure fury before switching to a threatening monotone where he warns him not to spit in his face. Going back to the Natal character, I liked how a movie like this shows both the positive and negative aspects instead of making a hagiography. He’s generous and legitimately cares about his neighborhood, but he can be bull-headed and he part of his donations came from mobster money winning Bicho lotteries. So many biopics can be shallow in that regard, so good for the filmmakers from avoiding that particular pitfall. There were some nice twists and interactions such as Natal being able to meet with the elites despite “dressing poor” or telling off people abusing the impoverished Brazilians with righteous anger.
Natal Da Portela isn’t always putting on a championship-worthy performance like the Portela School has done for decades now. The subtitles had typos and the songs weren’t translated at all which really annoyed me. It’s one thing for a movie like Bamako not having song subtitles with Bambara not being a common language outside of Mali or Burkina Faso (not that I excused New Yorker Films), but the fact that all the dialogue was in Portuguese which has millions of more speakers across several nations is just amateur by not having subtitles for those who don’t know the language. I thought there were too many characters to keep track of since a lot of them kept popping up left and right at different times. Some of them were more developed than others. There were some time skips that made sense at some points, but I felt like I was missing chunks of Natal’s story. I know his whole life story can’t be put on film nor should Paulo Cesar Saraceni put everything there, but I felt like this was an abridged version even for a biopic. Starting it out as a younger person in roughly his 20s is okay, but I felt that the biggest part that was missing was the starting up of the Portela School. Pardon the Drake reference, but I really have to do it. In the movie, it seems like Natal started from the bottom, and now he’s already here. That could’ve been a story in itself with him struggling to get people involved. There’s some drama later on like how the school is being handled or some internal strife, but at points, it felt secondary to other parts of the plot and ended up feeling quite like a scattershot effort from a plotting standpoint. There is some progression between Natal and some other characters, but they should’ve shown how some of that development happened and just assumed what happened offscreen.
This biopic was a serviceable movie, but I’ve seen better examples regardless of the genre. There’s competent production and great music, but the plot went overboard with time skips. The acting was strong, but there were far too many characters to keep a track of. I wished I learned a bit more about his life or the history of samba, but it just seems assumed. Maybe this makes a lot more sense to Brazilians who would be a lot more familiar with that music and the influence of the Portela School, but this comes off as confusing at times. Natal Da Portela wasn’t horrible, but it could’ve been a whole lot better.
Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1-2 points if you like samba music.
-Add 1 point if you like musician/music scene biopics.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you want coherent storytelling.
-Subtract 2-3 points if you don’t like too many time skips in your movies.
-Competent production quality
-Great acting from the cast.
-Wonderful musical selections
-Subtitle errors and no song subtitles
-Goes overboard with time skips
-Lack of development with Natal and the Portela School he founded
Final Score: 6/10 points
Content Advisory: Natal Da Portela is better for older audiences as I can see this getting an R. The language gets very strong with F-bombs and the N-word is used multiple times by the Davi character. Natal even uses an example of homophobic insults against Davi during a duel scene. There are multiple examples of female nudity and two sex scenes in the film. The violence gets bloody (the big example is Natal’s grievous arm injury at his railroad job) and someone gets bodied with a bullet in the chest. There’s drinking, smoking, and gambling with the Bicho game being tied to mob syndicate activity.
All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Natal Da Portela is property of ArtMattan. The poster is from IMDb and is property of ArtMattan.