At the start of this excellent film about El Sistema, the revolutionary music-education programme from Venezuela, founder José Antonio Abreu testifies to the “spiritual richness” music brings those from impoverished backgrounds. Of course he is right, but as we follow three students from 2009 to 2019 while Venezuelan society crumbles, Marianela Maldonado’s documentary tests that liberal piety in the face of daily hardships that grow to crushing proportions.
The trio are from the city of Valencia and they are hoping classical music will be their way out from their crime-ridden barrio, Las Brisas. Lanky viola player Edixon was raised by his grandmother after his father was murdered, and they live with his deaf mother, for whom they hope to find a treatment. Meanwhile, 12-year-old violinist Dissandra finds succour in El Sistema after the premature death of two young sisters. Another violinist, intense Wuilly, was locked in a church for seven years by his apocalyptic cultist parents and taught himself the instrument by watching YouTube videos.
All three can play up a storm, all the better to access the world of “fantasy, emotions and magic”, in Dissandra’s words, that elevates them above their circumstances. (She also observes that gunshots sound like semiquavers.) As the years advance, they fight to climb the ranks via exacting auditions into regional orchestras and then the Youth Orchestra of Caracas. But the irony is that in this socialist country there is also something unforgivingly Darwinian and capitalist about El Sistema. It is absurd to see Wuilly – destitute after flunking an audition – fiddling expertly for small change on the streets of Caracas.
The tempo of their lives runs out of control during the economic crisis that follows Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013. In the face of fuel, food and other shortages, art seems inadequate: Dissandra barely makes a living playing in a restaurant quartet, while Edixon elects to join the army. Or perhaps art is all there is left: Wuilly, toting his violin in street protests before the tanks, becomes an international protest symbol.
These diverging destinies are like something from a 19th-century novel; Maldonado drops in a couple of extended shots of the fuel queues that, Alfonso Cuarón-style, feel freighted with history. Her film manages the rare feat of combining the intimate and the panoramic, though perhaps it ends too abruptly, without a full debriefing from the three players. But its questions about art’s worth are left hanging for all to see.
• Children of Las Brisas is playing at Bertha DocHouse from 14 August.