- Movie Rating -

Maestra (2023)

| August 26, 2023

This review is part of my coverage of the 25th Annual Sidewalk Film Festival

Maggie Contreras’ Maestra came to me as a happy accident.  At Birmingham Alabama’s Sidewalk Film Festival, I marked on my schedule in the 1pm slot to see Celine Song’s Past Lives, but I got in the wrong line.  I didn’t realize that I had wandered into the wrong screening until the movie started – I was seated already so I thought I’d give it Maestra a try despite having no interest in the world of symphony conductors in a competition in Paris.  Half an hour later, when glued to the screen and outraged that one of the best conductors in the world didn’t make the cut!!  There is no justice.

The absorbing quality of the film begins before the first image arrives.  We hear a woman screaming, a sound that I suspected was taking me back through the paces of last year’s Tár, but was instead an intriguing session between teacher and student of primal screaming.  The teacher is French-born Mélisse Brunet who gives instruction to her student to dress and act and conduct on her own terms, not confined by what the patriarchy demands of her.  Underneath her unconventional approach lies the message that women in the world of symphony conductors do well to stand out.  In the whole of the profession, women tragically make up only about three percent.

That’s why the center of the film, the La Maestra competition, a contest held every year in Paris exclusively for women conductors is so important – it’s the only one of its kind and was created because of that.  The struggle for someone like myself (or perhaps it is a value) is that I know nothing about the symphony, I don’t read music, I rarely even listen to music.  That means that the competition, and judging one conductor from another, would be lost on me.  What separates a good conductor from a bad one?  Well, that’s the value of Maestra.  We don’t have to be able to read music to learn a bit about these women and their craft.

The contestants are as fascinating as they are individual.  Greek conductor Zoe Zeniodi manages to juggle children with the riggers of her profession and parses out the few hours a day when she has quiet in the house long enough to work.  Meanwhile Atlanta-born American conductor Tamara Dworetz remains childless but weighs the options of being able to having children and have her career at the same time.  Her process for practice is intriguing: she lies on the floor and visualizes the symphony in her head.

But the most intriguing, to me, is Mélisse Brunet, who gets more attention in the film than anyone else.  There’s a reason for that.  Returning to her home turf of Paris is a difficult journey.  Wandering the corridors of the Philharmonie de Paris concert hall we sense that something is bothering her, that something in the past is being rehashed.  The film delves into her difficult childhood as a young music student.  She goes back to her childhood home where conductors batons have been used as dowels for potted plants.  In this way, it is difficult for her to reconnect with her native soil.  From difficult memories of that time, she pulls herself away from feeling any love for her native France.

In a sense, returning to her native Paris and bringing around beautiful music in a profession that doesn’t seem to want her is a cathartic, rebellious and bold act of defiance.  We cheer for her as we feel the weight that she is under.

The competition itself is thrilling but it wouldn’t mean as much if we didn’t follow the personal lives involved.  Much like Rocky we know the combatants, why they are there, and what being there means to them, not just overturning expectation but achieving something that no one expected them to achieve.  When it was over, I had a appreciation for their struggles to rise above, and very glad that I got in the wrong line.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2023) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary