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Beloved diva film grips Portugal

By Alison Roberts
BBC News, Lisbon

Amalia Rodrigues, the singer who made Portugal's hauntingly melancholic fado music famous worldwide, is drawing big crowds again - to see a controversial film about her life.

Amalia Rodrigues in Paris, 1985
Amalia became a celebrated singer in the 1940s

Known in Portugal simply as Amalia, she died in October 1999. Her homeland declared three days of national mourning and suspended the general election campaign, in her honour.

The film will be shown abroad in the new year. It tells the story of the singer's rise from extreme poverty to international stardom, as she projected Portuguese folk music abroad in a way no-one has before or since.

But the film has been harshly criticised by members of her family.

Spirit of a nation

The voice of Amalia Rodrigues is not only instantly recognisable - it is also inimitable. So the first full-length film about her uses original recordings for all but her earliest performances.

Sandra Barata Belo, the young actress who played her in the film, says the role was a huge challenge.

"She's still very present in our memories. I think to have the feeling to be Portuguese is the same feeling to love Amalia. She belonged to us."

Remarkably, Belo plays the singer at ages from around 20 to over 60: the pivotal scene depicts the time when, diagnosed with cancer, Amalia shut herself up in a New York hotel and, as she later hinted in interviews, had suicidal thoughts.

In the film, at this moment of crisis she recalls key episodes in her life, from childhood onward, which are then shown in sequence.

Amalia, The Film has been screened in more cinemas nationwide than any previous Portuguese movie.

Relatives upset

Amalia receives Medal of City of Paris in 1989
In 1989 Amalia received a medal from then Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac

The singer had no children, but relatives including her sister Celeste, who is depicted in many scenes, unsuccessfully sought an injunction to block the film's premiere, arguing that neither Amalia's personality, nor those of family members, were faithfully portrayed.

Director Carlos Coelho da Silva says the film was thoroughly researched, in interviews with many people who knew Amalia well. In particular, certain behaviour that was shocking to the conservative society of the time shows how modern she was.

"The stories that we have with Amalia and the men that she related to are in fact real," he said.

"Everybody knows that she had at least those four men that we have in the picture. But she was a woman ahead of her time, so she was very open-minded about that. That's a way of also showing the tribute to her, and show her like a real woman, a woman of desire and of passion, not only for the fado but also as a human being."

Distribution deals have already been signed for the film to be shown in two dozen foreign markets, including Brazil, China and several Arab countries, starting with the Netherlands and Belgium in April.

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