Venice 2023: Bradley Cooper’s Portrait of Lenny & Felicia in ‘Maestro’

Venice 2023: Bradley Cooper’s Portrait of Lenny & Felicia in ‘Maestro’

by Alex Billington
September 2, 2023

Maestro Review

Another legendary conductor has landed on the Lido for the 2023 Venice Film Festival. Last year, Lydia Tár arrived to present her film Tár, one of the best films of Venice 2022 (my review). Actor / director Bradley Cooper returns to Venice (after premiering A Star is Born back in 2018) to present his new film Maestro, a portrait of American conductor / composer Leonard Bernstein. It’s actually more of an examination of his relationship with the actress Felicia Montealegre, who he married in 1951. There isn’t as much time spent on trying to portray him as a musical genius, or showing how he gained this intelligence, or anything deeper about how exactly he made a mark on the world of classic music by becoming one of the few great American conductors. It’s all about his time at home, at parties, with his family, and interacting with various men and a few women. Maestro is focused very distinctly on Leonard & Felicia, as a “pair”, and how their passionate relationship empowered & inspired them across their incredible decades-long careers in the arts.

Maestro is Bradley Cooper’s second feature film as a director, following a similar concept as with A Star is Born – both are about musicians, both are about a relationship between two tremendously talented people. This film, however, is described by Netflix: “A love letter to life and art, Maestro at its core is an emotionally epic portrayal of family and love.” It’s not meant to be the story of a genius like Leonard Bernstein, and what makes him such a talented man, it’s about how his most prominent relationship / marriage was invigorating and tumultuous. After meeting and falling in love with Felicia Montealegre, as played by Carey Mulligan, they ended up having three children together. It doesn’t take long for the film to, subtly at first and bluntly later, reveal that Bernstein is also a gay man. He begins to have love affairs with various men and at some point the film reveals that Felicia knows this and is okay with it. Or is she…? She seems to be, as the film then continues on throughout the rest of their lives – they never split up. It’s all presented linearly, starting with his early days working on Broadway shows into his years as a super famous conductor and composer.

It is an engaging film to watch, filled with rapturous performances from the entire cast involved. However, it never achieves the same greatness that Bernstein achieved in his own work. The biggest problems lie in the depiction of this relationship. By the end of the film, I had more questions than answers. If Cooper wants to keep the story focused on their connection, examining how they can be so good for each other, while Lenny is off with other men, there’s not enough to work with. He shies away from investigating this and examining how it even works between them. My biggest questions that are never really answered: HOW was she okay with his life and his lovers? How long did she know? Why was she fine with it? Was it simply because they had a connection with each other that was extremely strong even with other lovers? Was it an agreed upon open relationship or did she just still love him and couldn’t stop being with him? There’s hints, and there’s some wonderful scenes, but I wanted him to pull back the curtain further. Perhaps with the Bernstein family involved in the production they couldn’t dig any deeper than this or take more challenging storytelling risks.

I could spend the rest of this review raving about the gorgeous cinematography from DP Matthew “Matty” Libatique. Even if I don’t entirely love the film, this is easily some of the best cinematography in any film from 2023. Every last shot is perfectly composed, mirroring the perfectly conducted orchestras throughout Lenny’s life. There’s one amazing shot where Lenny is conducting and his shadow dances atop the curtains while Felicia stands in the middle watching. There’s another phenomenal scene involving Lenny conducting a performance inside of a church, with the camera circling around him, intensely focused on his face. I am sucker for perfectly composed and perfectly lit cinematography, and I won’t be surprised if Libatique ends up winning awards for Maestro this year. While it may not soar to the same musical heights as Tár, Cooper’s Maestro is nonetheless still a meaningful and compelling film about passion. Not only a passion for music, also a passion for people, for love, for family, and for living a full life. Maestro’s ultimate lesson may be that no one is a perfect person, everyone has flaws, but that shouldn’t stop true greatness from shining anyway.

Alex’s Venice 2023 Rating: 7 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter – @firstshowing / Or Letterboxd – @firstshowing


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