Maestro (Christian Movie Review)
About the Film
Maestro opens with a provocative title card: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” This quote from Leonard Bernstein is a fitting encapsulation of the film’s governing philosophy: Like music, human beings are messy, self-contradictory, and complicated. Maestro is a biopic of famed American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, but it is also a raw portrait of human nature. Beautifully shot and elevated by some dynamic acting, Maestro is a compelling but complicated film.
As the opening quote suggests, the movie explores the tensions that define people—internally and externally—without seeking to resolve them. Leonard Bernstein has magnetic charisma and an infectious love for people, but also insufferable hubris and selfishness. He is neither a hero nor a villain, merely a flawed human being. The “warts and all” depiction gives nuance and adds interest to the story, although at times it can lead to the unsatisfying experience of watching an increasingly unsympathetic character.
Before focusing on the film itself, I should point out that Bernstein’s homosexuality is central to the story and clearly depicted (see content section below). For the most part, the film neither condones nor condemns the behavior, instead merely presenting it as a matter of fact. His sexuality is not the point; rather, it is merely one of the significant internal and external tensions that define his life.
The story is elevated by two excellent performances. Clearly positioning himself for award contention, Bradley Cooper is dynamic as Bernstein. He completely disappears into the role. The audience sees only Bernstein, never Cooper. Carey Mulligan is also great as Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre. The character lives mostly under the oppressive shadow of Bernstein, so her internal complexity is not explored in as much depth. But her performance is excellent and provides the emotional center of the story.
Maestro is a beautifully shot film. There is a lyricism to the way that scenes flow and blend together, accompanied by music. There are some long, unbroken shots with an unmoving camera that create a sense of intimacy as well as plenty of brilliant scene transitions. Interestingly, the first 47 minutes of the runtime are presented in a delightful retro black and white before a time jump transitions the film into full color. The contrasting aesthetics effectively divide the film thematically. The early portion reflects the dreamlike simplicity and optimism of the young characters, while the later scenes—despite the brighter colors—explore the harsher realities of life and the emptiness beneath the glitz and glamor.
The film is often compelling, but at times the story seems to move forward without a clear destination or bearing. While it may have been an intentional decision, several of the story beats (particularly those involving Bernstein’s sexual infatuations) become repetitive. The film also leans toward subtilty almost to a fault, trusting audiences to interpret the many glances and implications. For the most part, this understated approach works well, although a few more high-energy dramatic moments would have been welcome.
As an R-rated film about a selfish and unrepentant homosexual man, the film may not have wide appeal for Christian audiences. Even so, Maestro is a technically excellent and brilliantly acted film that provides a compelling portrait of our complicated human nature.
Engage The Film
Human Nature in Tension
In one scene, Bernstein muses on the fundamental human tension between public and private life, concluding, “If you carry around both personalities, I suppose that means you become a schizophrenic and that’s the end of it.” His own life becomes a case study for this assertion. There is tension between his love for his wife and his homosexual desires, and between the bright lights and glamor of his external fame and his darker internal feelings of emptiness and depression.
During one sequence, he observes a performance of his Mass called “Almighty Father.” As the glorious religious music plays, he is shown holding the hand of his male lover as his wife looks on before she then departs in anger, marking a painful separation between the two of them. Despite the increasing public admiration, Bernstein’s internal life is deteriorating. Felicia later remarks, “He’s just a man. A horribly aging man, who cannot just be wholly one thing. He’s…lost.”
In the Bible, Paul wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). In Maestro, it is never implied that Bernstein “hates” his actions or is in any way repentant (even as he is unhappy by their consequences), but Paul’s words resonate with his life. As sinful human beings, we are not simple creatures. We are self-centered and contradictory, driven by passions and desires we cannot fully comprehend.
The film doesn’t attempt to resolve that tension, but it does suggest that increased understanding and grace is a solution. With her concluding words, Felicity says, “All you need, all anyone needs, is to be sensitive to others. Kindness. Kindness. Kindness.” For Christians, there is more to be said about the conversation, but those words are an admirable and worthy place to start. As Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
The marriage between Leonard and Felicity is seemingly doomed from the start. In a conversation with Bernstein’s sister, Felicity remarks, “I do believe there is that in everybody. One wishes to make adjustments to oneself. But having this imposition of a strong personality, it’s like a way of death.” She then declares that she will bear her marriage “completely without sacrifice. And if there’s going to be a sacrifice, then I disappear.” She is not as resolute in this declaration as she intends, as she ultimately bears much of the burden of being married to her strong-willed husband. Even so, reflecting on her unhappy life, she ultimately accepts some of the blame as a result of her selfishness.
Bernstein is even more driven by self-interest. Near the end of his life, he tells a room full of students that the artist must have ultimate freedom to create: “That’s why, for the rest of my life, however long or short that may be, I will live exactly the way that I want, as more and more of are in this day and age.” Both characters love each other but struggle to put love of others above love of self. In contrast, the Bible uses the metaphor of “one flesh” to describe the marriage union. There are many factors that contribute to the unhappy trajectory of Leonard and Felicity’s life and marriage, but their selfishness is arguably the root cause.