Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — The latest of Carlos Saura's romanticized cultural time capsules, "Fados," is as rich as its predecessors, an elegant setting for the shimmering, melancholy music of Portugal (by way of Spain). Seductive and beautifully made, it could be the date movie of the year for performing-arts fans.

Sticking with the presentation style used in "Flamenco," Saura presents a string of self-contained episodes, uninterrupted by host or narrator, blocked out on a soundstage with wall-sized scrims and mirrors usually providing the sole decoration. In addition to the shadow play and reflections these backdrops allow, the director also projects vintage film clips of influential singers against them, offering today's performers a couple of chances to pay direct homage to their forebears. On other occasions, artists are interacting with themselves -- as with a troupe of dancers whose graceful, fabric-draped movements are duplicated onscreen from a constantly changing perspective, resulting in an old-country take on Busby Berkeley kaleidoscopism.

The tone of fado is generally described as mournful, but these languid songs can also be proud, whether of romantic and artistic prowess (one woman recalls an all-night dancefloor battle with a rival for her lover's heart, boasting that she was the victor at dawn) or of the intimately-known streets of a singer's hometown. Though the styles overlap -- as demonstrated in a bewitching male/female duet near the end -- the music's tone is rarely as theatrically impassioned as flamenco; rather, it's gently fluid and bittersweet.

The musicians showcased range from current sensations like Portuguese beauty Mariza to surprise guest Caetano Veloso, for whom fado is only a small part of a wide stylistic repertoire. They typically take the stage one or two at a time, supported by a few instrumentalists or accompanying dancers, whose choreography appears to mix folk styles with more modern ones.

Predictably, the performances are uniformly strong, and lest the material threaten to grow homogenous, Saura punctuates it with numbers like a surprisingly at-home feeling hip-hop tribute, a political sprechstimme segment set against footage of political rallies, and a group scene, presented as if in a cafe, where the crowd takes turns standing to sing.

Saura ends the picture gracefully with a long crane shot that takes in the offstage crew before letting us stare straight into the camera itself -- seeing what many of the singers saw, as they sang to a lens and convinced us it was a long-lost friend or unfaithful lover.

Zebra Producciones S.A. / Fado Filmes

Director: Carlos Saura
Writers: Carlos Saura, Ivan Dias
Producer: Antonio Saura
Directors of photography: Eduardo Serra, Jose Luis López Linares
Production designer: Carlos Saura
Editor: Julia Juaniz

No MPAA rating, running time 92 minutes