The history behind Orson Welles’ planned third feature, after his debut (which we all know the name of) and during his troubled post-production on Magnificent Ambersons and role in Journey into Fear, is as fascinating and miraculous as the footage still salvaged. Welles was sent down to make a “good-will” doc on a carnival in Rio. When he got there, he was over-whelmed with the “humanity” of the people, and got pieces of footage whenever he was awake during the time of the carnival. He also filmed footage on a sound-stage (one of his few times to work with color) of the people in their celebration. But as he focused a crucial part of his documentary on a story he read on Time, about four impoverished, immensely courageous fishermen wanting to see their government and sailing hundreds of miles over two months on a raft to do so, the plug was pulled on the film. Apparently the studio, which switched hands (hence, the Ambersons situation), didn’t like what Welles’ was showing them, which was a bunch of dailies without the essential musical element. So, Welles, not fazed by the rumors that he was partying the whole time with the Brazilian brethren, did what any creative genius would do — he went from being a wunderkind in Hollywood to a Guerilla filmmaker along the high seas.
It’s All True, the original title of the scrapped-by-the-studios project, is put into two parts, and while it resonates with the kind of movie-doc exposition of Lost in La Mancha in the first part, the second part is simply put, Wellesian. Richard Wilson (once Welles’ assistant), Bill Krohn, and Myron Meisel, gather up interviews with the real locals from the time, or relatives, and put together a sort of video history on the tale of the Jangadeiros, and Welles’s impact on the people (many of whom never saw a movie before). First, there are wonderful, if all-too-brief, clips of an unfinished part of the documentary called “My Friend Bonito”. Then, we get to see an inside look at how the (un-true) rumors of Welles’ debauchery that supposedly ruined the project, ironically, forced Welles’ to cut corners to get his vision done - which becomes more intense after the original leader of the fishermen, Jacare, dies in a drowning accident. There are interesting interviews as well with Welles and his collaborators. Some of this is rather adulatory, but it’s also enthralling as a trip into a time capsule, and into a director’s process (i.e. using an extremely limited budget to finish the film).
And the second part of the film is, aside from the part on the film’s checkered history, is a unique example of history itself. “Four Men on a Raft”, Welles’ silent-film dramatization of the events as detailed in the Time article, is for me one of the greatest silent films never seen. Like in Citizen Kane, he uses some of his trademarks, like inventive low-angles and deep focus, but as well he implements such a heavy documentary style (some have said it’s “Eisenstein-like”, which I can see since it concerns a story of the working people against the fascist-types), it’s no less than one of Welles’ most daring feats as a director. Although this version has no audible dialog (people talk, no voices), and unlike many other silent-films there are no inter-titles explaining what they say. On top of that, there is a musical score provided by Jorge Arrigada that is rousing and pretty appropriate for the tones and sections of the film, but is arguably not what Welles’ might have used. What is extraordinary about this kind of dramatized (and I say dramatized because there is an added love story in the mix, not based on truth) film is that it’s the precursor to neo-realism that barely saw the light of day.
It’s amazing that by himself, Welles’ managed to form together his own sort of storytelling style in what remains of his film, that is very simplistic and completely with non-actors, and makes it work as a remarkable piece of art. The camera just watches things happen, and how it watches is all the more special in how Welles, with his cinematographer George Fanto, uses as much expressionism as naturalism in the compositions. Bottom line, this one part of the film is as courageous as the people who inspired it, and as a piece of film history, It’s All True successfully provides insight and enjoyment. After all, what better way to showcase Orson’s passion for life and film with a Samba! —MisterWhiplash