For anyone who still remembers 1999’s antiseptic Meryl Streep vehicle “Music of the Heart,” the Brazilian classroom drama “The Violin Teacher” may sound discouragingly familiar: A down-on-his-luck concert violinist regains his mojo through teaching, bringing harmony to a spiky collective of teens less fortunate than himself. Happily, Sergio Machado’s film brings a little more local color and narrative danger to the proceedings, even as it ultimately hews to fail-safe crowdpleaser formula. Given depth and character by the still-waters charisma of star Lazaro Ramos — plus a lively soundtrack that cannily fuses classical standards with favela beats — this year’s highly accessible Locarno closer (from the producers of recent Sundance winner “The Second Mother”) should hit the right note for a global array of distributors.
“A well-played song will soothe even the fiercest beast,” says reluctant instructor Laerte (Ramos) to his class of string-wielding township kids, voicing a familiar platitude that the script — worked on by many hands, including Machado’s — could just as easily have left unsaid. Though he’s referring specifically to an encounter with threatening criminals (who, the film somewhat optimistically posits, may drop their arms at the first strain of a Strauss waltz), a discomfiting subtext lingers. Did the urbane musician really just liken the residents of Sao Paolo shanty settlement Heliopolis (which lends the film its international title) to savage animals? If so, the social antipathy runs both ways: The Afro-Brazilian Laerte is nicknamed “Obama Junior” by his predominantly lighter-skinned students, one of whom goes so far as to pelt him with peanuts.
Such cultural tensions are intriguing, though Machado resists delving too far into uglier aspects of this loosely fact-inspired tale, while the pic’s onscreen depiction of the region’s violent gang warfare simmers wells below “City of God” temperatures. One wrench in the story, at least, unites haves and have-nots in a protest against police brutality — another aspect of the film that should, in the current news climate, resonate with auds well beyond Brazilian borders.
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For the most part, however, “The Violin Teacher” is just here for the music, beginning in the imposing corridors of the Sala Sao Paolo, home to the city’s elite symphony orchestra. There we encounter Laerte, a gifted but frail-nerved fiddler, on a blind audition for a place in the ensemble. He chokes disastrously, setting in motion an arc of personal redemption even before he agrees — being broke as well as demotivated — to give music lessons in a hard-up public school in the scrappiest corner of Heliopolis. Viewers familiar with any tough-love teacher drama from “Blackboard Jungle” onward will know the deal even before the world-weary principal (a piquant but underused Sandra Corveloni) informs Laerte that two predecessors quit in short order.
Sure enough, the pupils have been made disruptive and distrustful by compounded years of adult neglect, and collectively demonstrate no obvious musical ability: They can’t read sheet music, for starters, and handle their instruments as if scratching polystyrene. Neither a natural teacher nor an instinctive team player, the impatient virtuoso has his work cut out him, though there are no prizes for guessing whether or not his back-to-basics classes wind up not only whipping his students into shape, but making him a better, more patient player into the bargain. The script, again, isn’t afraid to underline these benefits for emphasis: “When I play, I feel worthy,” says one erstwhile troublemaker.
Under this tutelage, diamonds emerge in the rough — chief among them Samuel (Elzio Vieira), a prodigious young violinist abandoned by his parents, in whose progress the once-wary mentor becomes especially invested. With the class due to perform in a community fundraising concert mere months away, the ensuing narrative notes land largely as expected, though the low ones are sometimes harsher than they’d be in a Hollywood equivalent. (Funnier, too, as Laerte brazenly makes a classroom learning experience out of a brush with the favela mafia.)
It’s Ramos’ lovely performance that lends a necessary crackle of human fragility to what could otherwise be pleasantly predictable hokum. Resisting the option to play Laerte simply as a stoic genius or savior, the actor folds a streak of self-regarding insecurity into his most triumphant breakthroughs as a teacher, tacitly expressing the fear that success in this new arena may be pulling him further from a dream deferred. Not every decision of the heart here feels entirely pre-programmed. Ramos gets spirited support from a young ensemble of co-stars, though a few more keenly drawn female characters wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Obviously enough, Alexandre Guerra and Felipe de Souza elegantly ornamented score (incorporating pleasing arrangements of existing classical mainstays) is the star of a muted but professional tech package, further enhanced by bell-clear sound design. A closing-credits number brings a mellow strain of hip-hop to the mix, a juxtaposition with which editor Marcio Hashimoto — who more than once segues from painstaking musical rehearsals to uninhibited club life — is understandably quite taken.