Shortly after the 1941 premiere of his classic Citizen Kane, Orson Welles was prevailed upon by Nelson Rockefeller, the State Department's coordinator for inter-American affairs, to become a special ambassador to Brazil. The U.S., on the verge of entering WWII, was concerned about Axis influence in Latin America and wanted to secure the "southern front"; Welles, rightly considered a national cultural asset, was informed that it was his patriotic duty to make a film of his choice celebrating Latin America -- and promoting FDR's Good Neighbor Policy.
It's All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles, a documentary by Richard Wilson, Myron Meisel and Bill Krohn, tells the absorbing story of -- and shows surviving footage from -- the doomed making of the master filmmaker's 1942 three-part silent Latin American anthology, It's All True. You don't have to be a Welles buff to be absorbed by this story of trials and tragedy, truck and truth.
Because Rockefeller was a major stockholder in RKO Pictures, the studio financing Welles' Mercury production company, the trenchant 26-year-old consented to the assignment. He finished acting in and overseeing Norman Foster's direction of Journey into Fear, simultaneously completed directing The Magnificent Ambersons and, after getting assurances that even in absentia he would have final say in editing that film, went to Mexico. There he worked on "My Friend Bonito," a picturesque short about a Mexican boy and his blessed bull that Welles had by chance started earlier and now realized could fit into this studio-financed, government-promoted picture. Before finishing "Bonito" he was off to Rio de Janeiro for Carnaval, having decided to make it the focus of the second segment, "The Story of Samba." He figured he'd worry about the final installment later. On an airplane down to Rio, Welles read a Time magazine story about a 1,650-mile journey the previous year by four fishermen on a six-log raft around the coast of Brazil, without a compass, to plead for workers' rights. Welles chose to make the third part, "Four Men on a Raft," a re-enactment of the voyage.
Through interviews with Welles as a young man and in later life -- plus interviews with others involved in the project, some of the surviving Brazilian participants and Wilson, one of the documentarians (who had been Welles' assistant in Brazil) -- It's All True recounts the mounting obstacles that ultimately even an ingenious hurdler like Welles could not overcome. Welles' movie was never finished; legend has it that the bulk of the footage was dumped into the sea.
The troubles began when the lighting equipment never arrived in Rio, forcing Welles to borrow anti-aircraft lights from the Brazilian army. The studio heads, nervous that he was working without a script, started to meddle. When Welles filmed popular black performers, the executives were concerned about his "shooting a lot of jigaboos jumping up and down," and they feared for their political lives when Welles, in what they didn't at all consider good neighborly policy, became interested in the favelas -- the slums of Rio. Seeking their own brand of redress, the RKO brass screened The Magnificent Ambersons without Welles' knowledge and drastically recut the movie without his permission, giving it a happy ending. Most devastating and tragic was that after Welles convinced the four fishermen to re-enact their incredible feat, one of these national heroes, the leader of the jangadeiros, died when their raft capsized during filming.
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RKO management, feeling that their money was being wasted, cast career-damaging aspersions that Welles never recovered from. The studio pulled out of the project, leaving the determined, bitter, grieving Welles a skeleton crew, $10,000, an old silent Mitchell camera and scant black-and-white film to work with. A voodoo doctor appearing in "The Story of Samba" put a curse on him by driving a long steel needle into the notes on Welles' desk when he heard that the film was nixed.
The centerpiece of It's All True is the surviving footage of "Four Men on a Raft," found in 1985. Since there was no screenplay, the documentarians relied on letters, memoranda and interviews with crew members to create a 22-minute version. It premiered at the 1986 Venice Film Festival and is lovely and spare. Welles gets terrific, emotional performances full of integrity from the amateur performers, including a 13-year-old beauty who had never seen a movie. To achieve the angles he wanted from his primitive equipment, he buried his camera and/or cameraman in the sand and placed the actors on platforms. The closeups are commanding; shots of the vast skies are majestic. His brilliance with daring visuals is readily apparent.
The material from "My Friend Bonito" is also eloquent, though its tone is joyous: sheep literally bound across a village square, hurrying to the church to be blessed with the other small animals that children had prettified. "The Story of Samba," which Welles likened to filming a hurricane, is as frenetic as the other two are graceful. Using both real and re-created carnival festivities, Welles the craftsman zooms in on a gyrating celebrant and then effectively uses overhead shots to create a safe distance when the frenzied dancing resembles street-fighting. It's a sensory feast.
"'Course we all live with our past, but I try not to encourage it to misbehave," Welles said mischievously, looking back upon his experiences, Brazilian and otherwise. He has nothing to worry about with his posthumous gem in a jewel of a documentary.