By Jon Danziger
It's hard to watch this documentary and not think of an old cartoon that appeared in the late, lamented Spy Magazine in the late 1980s, which showed David Byrne and Paul Simon, doing their best to look incognito in safari gear, happening upon one another in the rainforest, each in search of musical inspiration. This is actually a pretty respectful documentary, produced in 1989 by Byrne, but given that it's mostly eye and ear candy, the natural conclusion is that there's some serious cultural dilettantism at work here—at the time Byrne was three years removed from having directed True Stories, the apex of his mannered oddness, and even though Talking Heads hadn't formally broken up, their best music was behind them and Byrne was visibly chafing at the restraints of being part of a band. This film came out the same year as Byrne's Brazilian-inflected solo album, Rei Momo, and no doubt the inspiration for that CD and the impetus to make this film came from the same place.
This is ostensibly a look at Candomblé, the manifestation of the African heritage of many Brazilians; it's got musical and religious aspects, as well as broader cultural significances, and seems to play a crucial role in the daily and spiritual lives of those in and around Bahia. Byrne's movie isn’t much of an explication, though; it's more a series of audiovisual postcards, emphasizing the exoticism and otherness of Candomblé. There seems to be a dense symbolic structure at work here, but Byrne provides us only with the occasional and usually impenetrable title card—e.g., "The Earth Health and Sickness." The locals speak for themselves, and they're clearest to us when discussing the political problems inherent in practicing Candomblé—they have teased out some affinities between their spiritual practices and Catholicism, principally to use the Roman Catholic Church as a useful cover to avoid persecution.
Candomblé challenges our conventional Western notions of religion, for it's full of myths and folk tales, homeopathic remedies, the spiritual lives of inanimate objects, and the emphasis on working oneself into a trance-like state; much of the movie focuses on the Orishas, the principal practitioners of Candomblé. Ultimately, though, you may wonder how Byrne and his crew set about editing this, as it's principally just lots and lots of footage—part documentary, part music video, part sociology, part entertainment. It's full of visual and aural stimulation, but in many respects it generates more heat than light.