A handsomely made, deeply affectionate homage to the mystical power of music and cinema, “The Call of the Oboe” is the kind of poetic work that will charm critics, probably woo a small specialized distributor and be overlooked by American auds. Brazilian-Paraguayan co-production is making the fest rounds and should expect continued visibility.
Taking a cue — albeit loosely — from the narrative structure of the Western, Brazilian helmer Claudio MacDowell’s film follows a stranger who arrives in a dead-end town and transforms it. The outsider, in this case, is a Brazilian drifter named Augusto (Paulo Betti), and his “weapon” is not a gun but an oboe. A man with no past — and a heart condition that gives him little time left to live — he shows up in an unnamed, seemingly deserted village in the interior of Latin America, where nothing transpires except for deaths and burials, which have become so commonplace that the apathetic townspeople no longer attend them.
It’s a perfect place, Augusto decides, to spend his last days in anonymity. Moved by the solemnity around him, he takes out his oboe and plays a hauntingly beautiful meditation. Mesmerized, a crowd slowly gathers to hear him play. A young couple, who had been fighting, bask lovingly in the music. A centenarian (Mario Lozano), left for dead, is once again alive.
In the ensuing days, Augusto and his music bring the entire town back to life. Aurora (Leticia Vota), a lovely young woman who owns a moribund movie theater, persuades Augusto to accompany the screenings of silent films. For the first time in years, the townspeople have movies in their cinema, music in their midst, and love in their hearts — and in their bedrooms.
As the dusty town springs to life, swatches of color and light begin to fill the frame, appropriately complementing Augusto’s transformative effect on the town. But it’s not all serious: MacDowell imbues the film with affectionate humor and palpable warmth. A disaffected telephone operator (Graciela Canepa) finds she can speak to God. The callous Inspector Flores (Arturo Fleitas), who initially sees the oboe as a tool of the devil, finally melts under its warmth. The entire cast sparkles.
Accompanied by Wagner Tiso’s plaintive oboe melodies, which are as hauntingly memorable as Toca Seabra’s understated but luminous lensing, “The Call of the Oboe” pleasingly manages to embrace nostalgia without wallowing in sentiment.