Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America: Film Review

The singer's soulful voice provides the most stirring moments of this frustratingly haphazard documentary.

Rodrigo H. Vila's documentary chronicles the life and career of the famed Argentine singer and social activist.

Not surprisingly, it’s the impassioned vocals of its subject that give Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America its power. Rodrigo H. Vila’s documentary about the famed Argentine singer and political activist suffers from its overly insular and hagiographic perspective, but in its best moments it well illustrates the reasons for her musical influence and social importance.

The film is loosely structured around a series of interviews conducted by Sosa’s son Fabian Matus -- listed in the credits for “Idea and Guest Appearance” -- with friends, relatives and colleagues of his mother’s. There are also audio and video interviews with Sosa herself, although she since died in 2009 their provenance is never identified.

The film touches on all the bases of the performer’s life.  We learn about her humble upbringing as the daughter of a day laborer and washerwoman; becoming a vital figure in the socially conscious musical movement known as nueva cancion; running afoul of the dictatorial military regime of President Jorge Rafael Videla, which resulted in harassment and death threats; fleeing to Europe in 1979 and returning after the regime collapsed three years later; myriad health problems; and, most importantly, celebrated international singing career. But much of this is rendered in such a sketchy manner that those not already familiar with her and the Latin American politics of the era will sometimes find themselves at a loss.

The interview subjects, not surprisingly, all deliver laudatory appreciations, such as one who describes Sosa as “the Edith Piaf of Argentina” and another who says she was a combination of Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. With the exception of Milton Nascimento, many of her Latin American musical colleagues will be unfamiliar to American audiences, although David Byrne is also on hand to discuss her wide-ranging influence.

The film would have benefited from greater use of its performance footage, most of which is frustratingly truncated. But the singer’s powerful and soulful voice is nonetheless on ample display, even in the most moving segment, in which she is seen being handed a microphone and singing from her seat in the audience at a concert she attended late in her life.

Sosa was a key figure in Latin America music who well deserves screen tribute. But it’s hard not to wish that this documentary had applied a more rigorous, comprehensive approach. As it is, it more closely resembles a lovingly assembled home movie.

Opens Jan. 23 (First Run Features)

Director/screenwriter: Rodrigo H. Villa

Executive producer: Dalila Zaritzky

Directors of photography: Mariano Cuneo, Hans Bonato, Ariel Gonzalez

Editor: Luciano Origlio

Composer: Diego Vila

Not rated, 93 min.