de facto film reviews 3 stars

Audiences looking for historical perspective and something unique, not to mention a tribute to music, will find it in They Shot the Piano Player, a refreshing new animated film by the filmmaking duo of Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal (Chico & Rita). Using unique animation techniques with elements of procedural and paranoid fiction, the film delivers a floating effect with its cautionary tale on the horrors of authoritarianism and military dictatorships that plagued South America in the first half of the last century. The aesthetics certainly recall Chico & Rita, and it delivers the same artistic effect, and it certainly holds similar themes with its ode to music trapped in political turmoil and upheaval. At the same time, this is an informative, engrossing piece, and its nostalgic narrative approach’s philosophical themes include how fragile democracies can be. At some point in the film during an interview from a character we’re informed how every nation in South America had a military coup that transitioned into authoritarianism.

While Javier Mariscal does more paintings and cultures and Fernando Trueba has done Spanish dramas with his last three features, the Spanish-filmmaking duo will regroup once again with their second unconventional animated film together, and they make quite a dynamic duo in storytelling. They join forces with animator Carlos León Sancha, who, along with his team, gives the film a floaty look that gives the animation some striking effects. Impressive animation aside, the best way to describe the experience of the film is as a sort of journalistic procedural or even a detective story in which we the film uses these framing devices that utilize interviews, testimonies, memories, and music renditions that interpret and heal from their traumatic experiences under tyranny. With the help of his friend Jaou (Tony Ramos), a music aficionado ends up providing a lot of arraignments and drops a lot of names for Jeff to get the information that he needs. Most of the interviewers consist of various musicians and each one has a compelling detail to reveal.  There is an emotional depth to the interviews that elevate away from feeling like bland talking head interviews.

They Shot the Piano Player'

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

The film follows Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), an American journalist who travels from New York and has been hired to write a book on bossa nova jazz. He ends up hearing a solo piece that resonates with him that is written and performed by Brazilian jazz pianist Francisco Tenório Jr., and his whole research gets inverted into finding out who the musician is. Come to find out, he mysteriously disappeared in Buenos Aires just before the military uprising in 1976, and Jeff finds himself turning his research on jazz into unlocking the unsolved mysteries of Tenorio’s disappearance. Of course, there is history of our own how our own CIA and government help back these regimes during the 70s and 80s. This is revealed during a crucial scene of Jeff returning back to New York with his editor, Jessica (Roberta Wallach), where they get information from another journalist John Rowles (Stephen Rowles) who explains these brutal dictatorships were installed to protect corporate interests during the South America’s anti-leftist campaign of terror.

Jeff finds himself traveling back to Brazil seeking answers, where we find out Tenorio Jr. had a political background; he was last seen as a political prisoner, and the authorities accused him of being a communist all because he carried a musician union card. We hear horrible testimonies of the nation’s horrifying history, which leaves Jeff devastated. While the history of South America’s is an alarming wake-up call to how vulnerable our democracy is in 2024, the film is far from being a heavy-handed or distressing polemic. With all the anguish, the music and striking visuals bring a vibrancy to the material.

 'They Shot The Piano Player' is voiced by Jeff Goldblum

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Just like Chico & Rita provided a sense of catharsis about enduring challenging circumstances in a golden age of Latin jazz, They Shot the Piano Player is every bit as a remarkable achievement. I haven’t watched Chico & Rico since its release in 2010, but having seen They Shot the Piano Player I am now curious to go back and watch just how skillful that film was.

THEY SHOT THE PIANO PLAYER opens in limited theaters Friday, February 23rd.