A culturally important Brazilian film designed for impressive sweep if not emotional power, “Villa-Lobos: A Life of Passion” encompasses the life of Hector Villa-Lobos, the country’s most revered and controversial 20th century composer, with modern filmic devices intended to match the artist’s modern musical ones. Helmer Zelito Viana exercises an ambitious grasp of the composer’s erratic rise to prominence, and Joaquim Assis’ ambitious screenplay plays a critical role in turning this into something more than the conventional biopic. Couched in a structure that constantly shifts across decades and deconstructs biographical chronology, “Villa-Lobos” courageously dares auds to keep up with it, which may limit its international appeal but will draw significant fest curiosity.
The Viana/Assis collaboration is not in the league of Raul Ruiz’s masterful “Time Regained,” but it is surely influenced by Chilean-born Ruiz’s continuing fascination with how cinema, better than any other art form, can play with time and visually express the reality and rhythms of memory.
In 1959 Rio, an elderly Villa-Lobos (played from his 50s through his 70s by venerable Brazilian thesp Andre Ricardo) looks in the mirror, simply utters, “What a life,” and off we go down a memory trail that refuses to adhere to any straight lines. In this regard, it’s notable and surprising that Syd Field, the guru of the conventional three-act screenplay structure, is credited as a script consultant.
In the first 11 minutes, four phases of Villa-Lobos’ adventurous life are presented in reverse chronological order starting in 1959; then moving to 1944 New York where the composer arrives with new lover Mindinha (Leticia Spiller); then to 1907 Rio where the feisty would-be artist (played in his 20s and 30s by Antonio Fagundes) loses his virginity; and finishing in 1896 Rio where Villa-Lobos as a child (Marcos Palmeira) shows his first fascination with music.
At this point, pic embarks on a course of hop-scotching between periods, with characters, images or remarks providing a kind of Proustian memory trigger device.
The childhood section is given the briefest play, showing a boy drawn to the music of the streets even as he hears Bach performed in his family parlor. In an interesting flip on the movie cliche, it is the father (Othon Bastos) and not the mother (Marieta Severo) who urges his cello training, though dad is as stern as they come.
Young, impulsive Villa-Lobos’ artistic birth provides the film with its most visually sweeping sequences, as the cellist laboring in a circus band is attracted to the wanderlust spirit of sax player Donizetti (Jose Wilker), who takes him on a trans-Brazilian trek into the Amazon rain forest.
Captured by tribesmen and then cared for by them, Villa-Lobos is entranced by jungle birds, whose singing radicalizes his sense of composition and makes him aware that “music is the voice of nature.”
Returning to the city, the composer stages his first solo concert, even as his collaborative wife Luci’lia (Ana Beatriz Nogueira) observes that his music is so taxing, it requires three hands to play. The chilly marriage grows colder as Villa-Lobos, befriended by the intrigued pianist Arthur Rubinstein (Emilio de Mello), is financially backed for a long stay in Paris, launching him onto the world stage.
A hardened, no less combative Villa-Lobos carries on new battles in his later years, attracted to the loving interests of Mindinha and drawn into an uneasy working relationship with the fascist, postwar Brazilian government, to which he appeals to fund national music education. A heart condition hospitalizes the composer for a time (depicted here as a series of unnervingly white rooms), while Luci’lia — separated yet refusing to divorce her husband — fights in court to remain “the true wife of Villa-Lobos.”
A triumphant final concert indicates that the times have caught up with the artist, so that the initially atonal, radical music is now so mainstream that the creator enjoys the status of a national treasure.
What is missing in Viana’s film is a burning emotional core, the kind of passion indicated in the title. Thesps Fagundes and Ricardo labor mightily to express this, but it usually resembles a lot of scenery-chewing rather than real heat coming off the screen.
Nogueira’s put-upon wife comes closest to producing the kind of friction the story clearly needs to energize its strong biographical elements.
Walter Carvalho’s burnished lensing leads the accomplished tech contributions, with Marilia Carneiro’s costumes especially attuned to the various periods. The soundtrack is suitably awash in the master’s provocative, combustible compositions.