Does life experience make the artist or does practice? Sergio Macho’s The Violin Teacher shows the struggle out-of-touch teachers and underprivileged youth face when trying to approach music and the arts. It’s a film where social class is not some minor setback; the challenges the characters face are major obstacles and not simply overcome.
Laerte (Lazaro Ramos) is a well-trained and talented violinist. After botching a blind audition to Sala São Paulo’s elite orchestra, he reluctantly starts giving music lessons in a public school in a heavily impoverished region of Heliopolis.
On the first day his class, unable to read sheet music or maintain proper posture, scoffs at their new teacher. To them, he is just another one of many to come through the school and leave. They call him “Obama Junior.” Even the principal, played by a notably underused Sandra Corveloni, doesn’t think he will stay on for long.
The set-up is the same kind of inspirational film shown in high school Careers and Civics classes nationwide. You could string it right up with films like Dead Poets Society or Freedom Writers. The plot is actually so similar to Dead Poets Society, you might rename the film Dead Brazilian Musician’s Society. It takes things in a more interesting direction, however. The stakes are higher and the characters have to deal with very real consequences where not everything will be all right. This makes for a film that in terms of characters and themes hits higher notes than one might expect.
Laerte soon discovers the importance of being charismatic and pragmatic in the face of this environment despite it not being his forte. A confrontation where Laerte gets into treble with a couple gang members where his only weapon is his violin is a tense, well-scripted moment. His relationship with one student in his class, a musical prodigy named Samuel (Elzio Vieira), inspires him to push the kids to succeed.
Macho does get some amazing shots out of his camera. A climactic motorcycle chase scene down the alleys of Heliopolis and a riot create a claustrophobic and tight atmosphere. But it’s not just in the more intense scenes. Simple establishing shots showcasing a group of high rises over the slum or an overpass leading into Heliopolis are clearly divide the frame and highlight the ways class and privilege play into every aspect of this story.
If there is a point where the film falls flat, it comes after the third act. Laerte and the other students aren’t given enough time to work through the consequences to their characters. Ramos does amazing work here and it’s such a pleasure to watch him that the film could have easily held on for another 20–30 minutes and it only would have been better for it.
As it is, The Violin Teacher is a sharp film where the characters and performances overcome the somewhat clique nature of its setup. This is a film with dynamic characters, themes, camerawork, and, of course, great music.