Starring: Orson Welles
Directed by Richard Wilson, Myron Meisel, and Bill Krohn
Written by Bill Krohn, Richard Wilson and Myron Meisel
Video: 4:3, Color and Black & White
Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Length: 85 minutes
Without a doubt, Orson Welles is one of the giants of cinema with a diverse gamut of films to his credit. He’s even credited with the invention of modern cinema with his film Citizen Kane (1941), which is routinely thought of as the greatest single film ever made. This documentary tells what happened to Welles immediately after the release of Citizen Kane. Following that movie, Welles was simultaneously involved in three projects while engaging in furious battles of artistic control with his studio, RKO. He wrote the screenplay and directed the flawed and ultimately studio-eviscerated The Magnificent Ambersons, produced and acted in the spy thriller Journey Into Fear, and produced and directed the documentary It’s All True. This current documentary carries the same title as Welles’ unfinished documentary film.
Welles was hired by the United States government, as part of the Good Neighbor Policy which was an effort to fend off pro-Nazi sentiments in the Americas, and partially funded by Nelson Rockefeller and RKO Studios. Welles went to Brazil to film the project, focusing on the story of four fishermen who sailed a raft 1500 miles along the coast of Brazil in 61 days to petition the President of Brazil concerning their rights. The men became folk heroes in Brazil. RKO provided him with an antiquated silent movie camera, black-and-white film stock, and no sound equipment. Not much later, an angry RKO pulled all funding and support for the project and Welles was never able to finish his film. This documentary is the story of how this project came together, fell apart, became lost, and then was rediscovered.
The archival footage of Welles discussing the making of the film is fascinating. Several of the people and their close relatives featured in Welles’ film are also interviewed and provide interesting insights into Welles and the filming of the documentary. The original footage that Welles shot has been lovingly restored and edited. Since the film production was closed down before it was finished, the “restored” film can only be viewed as an incomplete approximation. Nevertheless, what is presented is filmmaking at its most beautiful and most powerful. Welles was obviously smitten with the Brazilian people and their culture. People were filmed from extreme low camera positions, their heads becoming heroic monuments against the sky. The black-and-white images hold deep shadows and sparkling highlights. Raking sunlight creates crisp textures and dynamic compositions. It’s everything that you’d expect from Welles: masterful visuals.
Ultimately this is a story filled with tragedy on multiple levels. In many ways, Welles never recovered from the experience and his career was derailed for decades to come. This documentary provides a glimpse into unrealized potential and as such it is more of a curiosity than a true masterpiece from a master filmmaker – lost or not. Still, if you are a dedicated fan of Welles’ work, this would make an essential addition to your collection.
– Hermon Joyner