They Shot the Piano Player, Javier Mariscal, Fernando Trueba, Spain. Exquisite hand-drawn animation, a docudrama about Bossa Nova and Francisco Tenório Jr., a Brazilian piano virtuoso.
The story’s set in Brazil and Argentina in the 1960s and 1970s, when totalitarian regimes were taking over both countries—with our help. I believe it had to do with our overblown fear of communism. Nevertheless, the music is wonderful, the music and the talk about music in many interviews with well-known musicians. They all describe Tenório as a gentle person and a gifted musician. Tenório says, “I know how to play the piano. I don’t know how to make money.”
The film aroused dark memories of Latin American Boom era literature I read in those decades and after—about the desaparecidos, their tortured bodies dropped into the sea, babies stolen, innocent people snatched off the street. The film gives only glimpses of that, but it is enough. The Madres of the Plaza de Mayo, first to defy the Argentinian regime, stood on that Plaza month after month with photos of their disappeared loved ones in their hands.
This is what happens when authoritarians seize power like they tried to do here with their pretense that the election was rigged while they attempted to do exactly that—rig the election. Authoritarians ban books, call those who oppose them vermin, seek to silence opposition, ignore the rule of law.
At the fine Mexican film we saw, Tótem—bittersweetly lovely—the woman next to me said she thought Florida was a good place to retire but couldn’t take the MAGA cult atmosphere there or the book-banning governor, so is now happily living in Colorado. Individual rights are compromised wherever a dictator holds power. I’m off topic. But this is serious.
Tenório was thought to be the best pianist of his time and place. He came back to the Buenos Aires hotel late from a gig played, went out for cigarettes or a sandwich or an aspirin. Oblivious to politics, he made a foreigner’s mistake, going out on the street at two a.m. His long hair made him suspect. He had a musician’s union card in his wallet, marking him as likely to have communist tendencies. Thrown into a car, he was never seen again. The film unearths what happened to him, how he died.
Afterwards, we had a film festival experience, started a discussion with the couple next to us and the man, Mario, reminded us that Mariscal and Trueba did another film like this one, in 2010, Chico and Rita, set in Havana. We’d forgotten that, saw that film. It won awards.
Phil and Mario tried to remember the first Joao Gilberto album, which they both were sure they owned, and promised to email each other about it. Mario teaches computer science at DU and took guitar lessons from Ricardo Iznaola. We know Ricardo and Victoria, good friends of our good friends who taught cello at DU and then there we stood in a crowded theatre lobby, at two degrees of separation. It made for a warm ending to our festival, an example of connections, of our common humanity, although the film had reminded us of how easily those things can be forgotten.