Earlier this year, Marin Alsop blasted Todd Field's drama Tár — starring as Cate Blanchett as a tyrannical conductor — as “anti-woman.” “To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser,” the real-life conductor told The Times, “for me that was heartbreaking.” For those inclined to agree with Alsop, here's your antidote: a documentary about an all-female conducting competition, in which Alsop makes an appearance as a judge. Maestra is a resolutely “pro-woman” work that aims to present its subjects in the best light possible — resulting in a film both uplifting and somewhat toothless.
Maggie Contreras' directorial debut centres around La Maestra, the world's first and only competition for female conductors, and follows the journeys of five talented conductors from different corners of the globe. The film's first act introduces us to these contestants as they prepare for the competition in their respective homes. Among them are Tamara Dwortez of the United States, Anna Sulkowska-Migoń of Poland, Zoe Zeniodi of Greece, Ustina Dubitsky of Ukraine, and Mélisse Brunet, a French conductor residing in Iowa City.
Conducting remains one of the most gendered professions; Deborah Borda, the head of La Maestra's jury and CEO of the New York Philharmonic, reveals that less than 3 percent of conductors leading major orchestras are women. Maestra is at its best when shedding light on the unique challenges the contestants face as women in their profession, and the camaraderie and solidarity that emerges from sharing their experiences. Navigating pregnancy and motherhood is a theme that recurs in their candid conversations; Tamara seeks advice from Ustina and Zoe about balancing her career with her desire to have a family, and Zoe shares her experience of being fired when she became pregnant.
Darker themes are touched on, too. Mélisse, who emerges as the film's main focus, is haunted by memories of abuse while a music student in Paris — and returning there for the competition's final is acutely troubling. But the film only skims the surface on these issues, and never quite works out how to balance them with its otherwise inspiring narrative of breaking the glass ceiling. Late on in the film, there's a fascinating series of moments in which contestants reveal they still face sexism in this completion — in the judges' feedback, one is told to tone down her energy, another to smile more — but again the filmmakers don't probe too much.
Instead, the documentary spends more time indulging platitudes about self-belief and success. “One of the things we look for as a conductor,” says Borda, “is our authentic self.” What does this mean? How does one square the directive to “be yourself” (Alsop's words this time) with the intense preparation, rehearsal, and performance we see in the documentary? We gain a strong sense of the contestants' career aspirations, but less insight into who they are as musicians, as artists. It doesn't help that the editing often gets in the way of listening to the musical rehearsals and concerts, hindering our ability to appreciate the contestants' talent and understand their passion for conducting. The decision to intercut Anna's triumphant final performance of Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite with Mélisse's sombre visit home blunts the emotional impact of both scenes.
Speaking recently at a BFI Southbank introduction for Howard Hawks' screwball classic His Girl Friday, Catherine Wheatley pointed out the absurdity that that film is often said to have inspired countless careers in journalism, despite its lambasting of the newsroom and the ethical lapses it accommodates. Watching the film, though, it's not too hard to imagine why: it places the viewer at the heart of the drama, lets them feel the rush. Likewise, Tár hardly paints a “nice” picture of the classical music world, nor women conductors, but it does capture its characters' passion and excitement for their craft — and, by successfully immersing us in the music, offers us a taste of that same excitement. In this respect, if we must, like Alsop and others who insist on the “right” representation, see our media in terms of how useful they are, I can't shake the feeling that Tár is still just as likely as Maestra to inspire the next wave of female conductors.
Maestra has played at this year's Sheffield DocFest.