Fresh off its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Jakub Piatek’s Pianoforte arrived at the Miami Film Festival with an inspiring look at a cutthroat musical competition. Forget American Idol, The Voice, and its pairs. They’ve got nothing on the International Chopin Piano Competition. The event first began in 1927. Since 1955, it has taken place every year in Warsaw, Poland.
Piatek is better known for Prime Time (2021), a Sundance selection bought for distribution in the U.S. by Netflix. There was something gimmicky in the movie, a clockwork thriller about a young man who takes hostage a TV studio on New Year’s Eve 1999, pushing to make a public address live. It was a tad too similar to Money Monster (Jodie Foster, 20016), where George Clooney and Julia Roberts played the adults trying to outwit Jack O’Connell as the desperate kidnapper.
Prime Time was underwhelming, but the same year of its release, Piatek shot this sure-footed documentary debut. He set out to follow some of the players at the prestigious piano competitions in Warsaw. Young pianists make a pilgrimage to the hometown of good old Frederic from all over the world. Their goal is to partake in an event that can make or break their careers.
We meet Ewa Gevorgyan, a Russian-Armenian siren with nerves of steel; Marcin Wieczorek, a hometown boy with a devilish grin; and Hao Tao, a piercingly young Chinese prodigy. An Italian contingent includes charming Leonora Armellini; the intense Alex Gadjiev, with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair; and the disarmingly self-deprecating Michelle Candotti. They are a handful of the 87 contestants who will submit themselves to a grueling competition. Over 21 days, they play in three phases and a final round where 12 finalists play for the first prize. The winner takes a 40 thousand euros bag. That is nice, but it is nothing compared to the prestige that comes with prevailing over the others.
It is virtually impossible to document the whole thing. In one of the rounds, the pianist must play for three hours straight. Besides, chances are audiences are not proficient enough in classical music to appreciate the nuances of performance - God knows I am not -. Piatek’s solution to this logistical problem is to defuse the competitive angle and concentrate on the personalities and their backstories. The movie jumps back and forth in time, giving us precious glimpses of their lives back home, far from the pressure cooker ambiance at the theater and the rehearsal spaces.
It is clear they are a motivated, ambitious lot. The differences in culture, nationality and economic status paint a fascinating picture of the globalized world and the new generation ready to take it over. You can see that Italian musicians have some advantages, thanks to how deeply ingrained the art of classical music is in their culture. Their comfortable middle-class life offers a support system that allows them to thrive. We see Hao practicing in his cramped family apartment in Beijing, his keyboard next to the stove where Mom cooks dinner. Later, the woman warmly shows the filmmakers an album where she saves all the bus and train tickets they have bought to take her son to lessons and competitions around China.
You also get dueling portraits of teacher-student dynamics. Ewa travels with her mother and her piano teacher, a stern taskmaster ready to grab her hands and move her fingers around so that she gets what she is asking her to do. Her bluntness contrasts with Hao’s teacher, who cuts a motherly figure, caring and supporting in a warmer key. She gets a lovely moment where she recognizes that she is not driven enough to aspire to the Chopin competition.
And these kids are driven. They ponder the subtleties of the available pianos and which would work best for their performance. They fret over the clothes they will wear and how they will look on the stage - “It helps to look like Chopin,” says Wieczorek half seriously, half in jest. You get glimpses of their hours and hours of practice. A merciless montage shows them alternating at the piano during the competition. The concentration on their faces is downright scary, their expressions dramatic. You don’t really need to know about music to see what is at stake for them. Sometimes the movie feels more like a sports documentary than a musical one.
“Listen to them!” says a distraught competitor, “they are physically incapable of playing a false note.” They might be, but artistic performance is subjective. You can’t measure it in meters or minutes. Because we - I - do not have the critical acumen nor the opportunity to gauge their work, we accept them as equals. As pressure mounts, one quits convinced there is no point in competing against two formidable talents singled out as the top contenders. “You are very young. You will come back,” says a judge to a distraught pianist left out in the cold when the awards announcement comes around.
As “Pianoforte” winds down, a potential pitfall of Jakub’s creative approach manifests itself. What if the actual winner is a marginal presence in the film? Luckily, the emphasis is not on who wins or who loses but on the personalities who engage in the competition. We enjoy watching these young kids excelling at a frankly mysterious art. I’m guessing only those who know how to play piano can get an inkling of the agony and ecstasy they experience. We can’t play it, but we can feel it.
The final credits update us on the characters in a way to extend the movie into the future. It would not be unexpected to see the filmmakers catch up with them a few years later, like Michael Apted with the subjects of his Up documentary series, which he revisited every seven years. "Pianoforte" shows us the fragility of performance art. It is as fragile as those who dedicate their lives to practicing it. Maybe a judge will not vibe with your style. An awful war will hinder your career. Alas, the prodigies of “Pianoforte” can find solace in their youth. They have whole lives ahead of them to find their inner Chopin.
This movie would make a killer double feature with Tár (Todd Field, 2022). They might dissuade your charges of pursuing the musical path or fire up a latent desire. Either way, it is a risk worth taking.
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