LISTEN TO THE first few lyrics of Sodade, a song written in the 1950s which was popularised and rose to meteoric cultural proportions in the early 1990s, and you will know exactly who Cesária Évora was – or at least, you will know her voice, which runs like hot strong fluid between the interstices of your soul. She gave international currency to the Cape Verde and the plight of the people from there, as she gave the genres of morna and coladeira a treasured identity to western ears. But Cesária’s life itself was far from charmed. Her story is the focus of Cesária Évora, a film written and directed by Ana Sofia Fonseca, which features on this year’s Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival.
The beauty and skill of this work is the way in which the profound downs and unimaginable ups of Cesária’s life are reflected, not with a sense of the untouchable, but with a dignity and a texture of integrity which embrace all that Cesária was. It is informative without being dry and allows you to immerse your head and your heart in this extraordinarily rich and sad music, which reaches, on the timbre of a magnificent voice, back into the lives of refugees and whale workers.
The resonance between the complexity and tawdriness of a life of a pinnacle of song, such as that of Edith Piaf, and that of Cesária is palpable. She was the barefoot diva. The queen of morna. The woman who grew literally from the gutters of her home village to strut her stuff on the stages of the world’s biggest arenas. The film doesn’t, however, pull punches in portraying this woman who didn’t kowtow to expected western traditions of female beauty and didn’t believe in the value of money. Touching with wisdom, but not sensationalism, on issues related to mental illness which framed Cesaria’s life, it is a beautiful tale that is about how one should allow the ebbs and flows of time to give and take: Cesaria only came to prominence when she was 50 years old. Her youth had been spent in poverty, ignominy and depression.
Hers was a life of giving and living, of loving and laughing. Her greatest dream was to own a house big enough to open its doors to her people who were poor. She was established as a person with very specific values by the time the wave of fame caught her in its froth. It didn’t change her; it enabled her to give morna to the world. Forever.
Cesária Évora is written and directed by Ana Sofia Fonseca. Produced by Irina Calado, it is edited by Cláudia Rita Oliveira and features on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs until 3 July 2022, on-line, in Cape Town at the Labia Theatre and in Johannesburg at the Killarney Centre Cine and the Bioscope in Milpark.