Villa-Lobos: A Life of Passion

A new film by the Brazilian directorZelito Viana, based on the life of Villa-Lobos, was released in 2000.  It is called Villa-Lobos: Uma Vida de Paixão (A life of passion).

Mapafilm has an excellent website on the film, with pictures, excerpts from the score, information on the cast and technical crew, and a long interview with director Viana.  I'm anxious to see those, and to hear about distribution plans outside of Brazil.  I'll definitely pass on any information I receive.

   October 2007: North Americans can now buy the DVD on 

The film stars the great Brazilian actor Antônio Fagundes (right) as the mature Villa-Lobos, with Marcos Palmeira (below) as the composer as a young man.  For more cast and technical information, go to this page on the Internet Movie Database.

Antonio Fagundes as Villa-Lobos

Marcos Palmeira - the composer as a young man
 Reviews of the film, in Portuguese, are gathered on this page, which also includes an excellent large-scale JPG file of the film's poster.


The following review is by Harold Lewis, who has contributed a number of entertaining and informative essays and reviews to the Heitor Villa-Lobos Website in the past.  It's entitled:

Villa-Lobos - a passionate life on film

I caught up with Zelito Viana's film "Villa-Lobos - uma vida de paixão" this July in a small 'art-house' cinema in Ipanema.  If you get the chance to see the film - even in its Portuguese language version - don't miss it.  Anyone who admires the genius of Villa-Lobos (and you are unlikely to be visiting this website if you don't!) will find it absorbing, moving and inspiring,  It's a relatively lengthy film - about 160 minutes - and it packs a lot of incident into this time-span: Viana does well to sustain pace, momentum and balance throughout. 
Though knowing about the composer's life and music helps appreciably in following the flow of the film, it is a mark of Viana's courage that he intends the film not for the culturally informed few, but for the broader cinema audience, which he wants to take with him on a "journey through the mind of a creator", to quote his own words.  It is in no sense a musicological film, nor is it meant as a biographical survey; and its professionalism in conveying an understanding of the passions that motivated Villa-Lobos is a million miles away both from the crude, romanticised style of conventional Hollywood biopics, and from the grey approach of film documentaries. 
That phrase in the title - "a life of passion" - doesn't just reflect the emotional force of his music, its intensity and exuberance.  It serves to weld together the main strands in the film: namely, his music, his love for Brazil and its people, his commitment to the potential of music as a social and cultural force, and the key personal relationships in his life - particularly, of course, his troubled marriage to Lucília and the happier relationship that he enjoyed with Arminda.  We also witness the passion of V-L's dislikes and animosities - for example, his contempt for the 'elites' and their narrow, colonialised ideas of what music should sound like! 
The film is structured as a series of interlocking flashbacks and recollections - V-L reflecting on his life as he attends a concert in his honour at the Teatro Municipal in Rio.  Memories of events, personalities and melodies evoke scenes and perspectives that move back and forth in time, from his childhood and the rigorous upbringing he received from his father, and his early contacts with street musicians, to his travels in the interior of Brazil, his first successes and failures as a composer, his years in Paris . and so forth, until his final years of illness, which coincided with a surge of international acclaim.  This structural device is used with great perception and works remarkably well - at least for someone who recognises the connections and allusions.  Everything in the film seems to be founded on solid research (which, according to the director, included hundreds of interviews and meetings with people who knew V-L, including Arminda herself).  In one of the more colourful sequences, portraying V-L's travels in the sertão of the north-east and in Amazônia, we met a rough, bibulous country fiddler, just as irreverent toward authority as V-L, who becomes his companion on an expedition into the rain forest, where V-L searches for and hears the fabulous uirapurú bird, inventing a kind of musical shorthand to transcribe its song and the sounds of the forest.  When I saw the film, I couldn't at first place this character; but there he is - Donizetti, the fiddler from the state of Ceará -  identified in Maria Augusta Machado da Silva's excellent mini-biography of Villa-Lobos (Revista do Brasil, no. 1/88, pp. 45-65 - an article that really ought to be published in an English translation).
Viana also gives a good impression of V-L during his Paris years, reconstructing the ambience of Paris - without actually having to incur the expense of filming there! - and reminding us of V-L's impatience with European notions of Brazil as an exotic place where people were savage and life was crude.  Of course, Viana is too intelligent to fall into the trap of biopic clichés on the lines of "Hello Villa-Lobos, have you met my friends Varèse and Prokofiev?" (both of whom, by the way, knew V-L in Paris and admired him).  Among the many moments of humour in the film, the one that brought the most appreciative response from the cinema audience was a scene where V-L, eager to impress his Parisian friends, cooks up a feijoada for them.  The pot lid is lifted to reveal the bubbling, glutinous stew. "Mais, c'est de la merde", cries a horrified Frenchman.  A furious V-L leaps at him, yelling "La merde, c'est vous, salop!" 
Viana has not flinched from showing the rough edges to V-L's personality, the moments of asperity as well as geniality.  It's an honest but unsensationalised 'warts-and-all' portrait, which one feels is exactly what V-L would have expected and wanted.  Its impact is reinforced immensely by an outstanding contribution from Antonio Fagundes as the older V-L.  Fagundes is one of the best-known faces in Brazilian cinema and TV: his experience and maturity result in an amazing identification with the role, particularly in those painful scenes depicting the difficulties of V-L's failed first marriage and the embittered reaction of Lucília to their separation.  But he's also excellent as the lovably gruff composer: for example, talking to American reporters, "Why do you always call me 'Villa-Lobos, the Brazilian composer'? Do you talk about 'Mozart, the Austrian composer' or 'Schumann, the German composer'?" 
Marcos Palmeira as the younger V-L is almost as good, while Ana Beatriz Nogueira makes Lucília credible and understandable, and Letícia Spiller (another familiar face from the casts of TV novelas) is a model of sympathy, charm and elegance (almost too beautiful) as Arminda. 
Viana chooses to use a relatively narrow cross-section of compositions, even allowing for the oceanic proportions of V-L's output.  It would have been good to hear more of the songs, as well as extracts from the orchestral Choros. I was delighted that he included part of the wonderful Nonetto - the current absence of this work from the recorded catalogue is scandalous, as is the lack of a good modern recording of the cantata Mandu-Çarará! 
My few reservations have to do with the treatment of V-L as a professional musician, and with what I thought was a certain lack of insight into both the task of composition and the physical impact of his music.  I didn't feel the film gave a sufficient sense of the sheer hard work that V-L invested in his music, nor of the seriousness of his approach to getting things right when it came to performing his own music and that of the composers he admired.  For example, the Paris sequences presented effectively the image of a self-confident, almost brashly gifted personality, but I couldn't really see that person conceiving and putting down on paper the marvellous sequence of major works which V-L wrote in that period.  Then again, one of the startling and breath-taking qualities of V-L's music is his ability to evoke an entire landscape in a single phrase - when, for example, a melody on the horns seems to define a distant horizon and the strings float over a vast expanse of terrain in the foreground: Choros Nos. 11 and 12 are full of such instances.  One film director who captured that feeling unerringly was the great Glauber Rocha, notably in the opening sequence of his film "Deus e Diabo na Terra do Sol" (God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun), when the immense sertão landscape of Bahia is revealed against the Aria (O canto da nossa terra) from the Bachianas Brasileiras no.2. Viana's film offers nothing comparable with that! 
But I would not wish to put a disproportionate emphasis on these few points of criticism.  I enjoyed the film as much as I had hoped, and I would have regretted it bitterly if the short time I spent in Rio de Janeiro had not allowed me to see it.  The film left me with the illusion that I had achieved something which had been denied me in life - namely, that I had met and known Villa-Lobos.  I can't think of any praise higher than that. 
- Harold Lewis, August 2000

 Marcos Palmeira as Villa-Lobos

Marcos Palmeira as the young Villa-Lobos