Drawing extensively on the title character’s bestselling 1857 memoir, Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West, Steve Rivo’s film is a true-life story of a groundbreaking journey into the still-new American West of the mid-19th century. Solomon Nunes Carvalho was a respected photographer and portrait painter who signed on to a Western journey with explorer John Fremont’s Fifth Westward Expedition, traveling from New York to California. Whether or not they get there, I won’t spoil for you.
Born in Boston, an alumnus of Brookline High, Steve Rivo grew up in a film-loving family. He was exposed at an early age to many of the great films, but he always had a warm spot for Robert Aldrich’s “The Frisco Kid” (1979), in which Gene Wilder plays a rabbi assigned to a synagogue in San Francisco in 1850. To get there, the rabbi must cross the Rockies on horseback with a varmint played by Harrison Ford.
Today, Rivo makes his own movies. He’s founder and owner of Down Low Pictures, an independent documentary production company based in Brooklyn. When he was offered a project about the painter and daguerreotypist Solomon Carvalho, a Sephardic Jew from Charleston, South Carolina, who accompanied legendary explorer John Fremont on his 1853 Fifth Western Expedition, the story’s resemblance to “The Frisco Kid” helped win him over.
I recently saw an inspiring documentary film title “Carvalho’s Journey” here in St. Louis at the Jewish Film Festival.
In 1853, travelling with explorer John Fremont’s Fifth Westward Expedition, Carvalho became one of the first photographers to document the sweeping vistas and treacherous terrain of the far American West.
The 2016 Teaneck International Film Festival will include the documentary, “Carvalho’s Journey,” which made its world premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 2015. A real life 19th century American western adventure story, Carvalho’s Journey, directed by award-winning filmmaker Steve Rivo, introduces audiences to Solomon Nunes Carvalho (1815-1897), an observant Sephardic Jew born in Charleston, S.C., and his life as a groundbreaking explorer and artist.
This documentary focuses on artist-daguerreotypist Solomon Nunes Carvalho, whose photography chronicled the expansion of the American West.
A few of Carvalho’s surviving prints of that trailblazing expedition and several of his acclaimed paintings are among the little-known gems in “By Dawn’s Early Light: Jewish Contributions to American Culture From the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War,” an eye-opening exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum on display now through June 12.
Making its debut last July at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Carvalho’s Journey has made the rounds at more than a dozen cities across the U.S. Rivo says he has been struck by audiences’ deep interest and enthusiasm for all aspects of Carvalho’s story — especially the depiction of Charleston’s Jewish community during the early 19th century. According to the filmmaker, most viewers are surprised to learn that during that time, the city had the largest Jewish community in America, with more than 600 Jewish residents in 1820. Other audience members connect with the film’s depiction of the early days of photography.
Have you made plans for Valentine’s Day yet? If not, then I suggest you go straight to the Spertus Institute website and order tickets for their screening of Carvalho’s Journey.
Although the Spertus description doesn’t mention this angle, I am here to tell you that Carvalho’s Journey, in addition to all its other virtues, may well be one of the greatest love stories in Jewish American history.
Solomon Nunes Carvalho was an unlikely candidate for activism and for adventuring, but he enthusiastically took on those joint roles as a product of his artistic zeal. “Carvalho’s Journey,” directed by Steve Rivo, is a spirited retelling of the all-but-forgotten story of the Baltimore-based painter and daguerreotypist, a Sephardic Jew who was probably the first professional photographer of his faith, and the man who documented Colonel John Fremont’s quixotic fifth expedition across the American West in 1853. Rivo cleverly opens his film in the middle of Carvalho’s story, with his decidedly urban protagonist agreeing to go into the wilderness with Fremont for a one-of-a-kind journey. It sounds like the scenario for a Jewish remake of “The Revenant,” and there are more than a few passing similarities, but the spiritual and cross-cultural odyssey involved is more benign and more fruitful. Rivo tells the story briskly, with immeasurable assistance from Robert Shlaer, a modern-day practitioner of the daguerreotype who has been recreating Carvalho’s trajectory.
“Carvalho’s Journey,” written, produced and directed by Steve Rivo, relies on a range of archival material, including Carvalho’s memoir and the few remaining copies of the daguerreotypes that survive as etchings and illustrations. Scholars and artists chime in, and the story moves at bold clip against the backdrop of Antonio Rossi and David A. Ford’s staggering cinematography.