25 September, 2010

Le concert (The Concert) (2009)

The right notes

Official Selection, European Film Awards 2010

Comedies make you laugh, and tragi-comedies do too, but how to describe Radu Mihaileanu’s latest film Le concert (2009)?

Its Russian settings, with hilarious takes on all the cliches we’ve come to expect of post-Cold War Russia – thuggish, gun-toting Mafia lords and their cash approach to culture, aging Communists longing for the good old Soviet days, Everyman (and Everywoman) scrounging to raise a ruble in the crudely capitalistic present – will make you laugh until you cry. The frenzied action never lets up – it might even strike some as a bit over the top, like a Kusturica film – even when the troupe is unleashed on a sedate and unsuspecting Paris.

But the tears you’ll shed during the climactic concert – a faux Bolshoi orchestra attempting to recreate a Brezhnev-era musical moment that was cruelly cut short – will be tears of joy. A neighbour of ours, a hardy outdoorsman who had never before displayed his sentimental side, said that he was not immune to the emotion of Le concert, and I can understand. Music does that to you, especially a stirring Tchaikovsky concerto played with such virtuosity.

Don’t get me wrong – despite its title and its story premise, this is not a musical, or even a musical comedy. There’s that difficulty again in classifying Le concert. Let’s just say that if you like a good story, a good laugh (despite the tears), and music from visa-fixing Gypsy fiddlers to the Red Army Chorus’ ever-rousing Kalinka, you’ll enjoy Le concert. But there’s a serious side to the story, which is what attracted France-based Mihaileanu to it.

Mihaileanu, the son of a Romanian Communist who had to change his name from Buchman to escape Nazi extermination camps, has dealt with Jewish themes before. His award-winning 2005 film Live and Become (Va, vis et deviens), dealt with the difficult integration into Israeli society of the Ethiopian Falasha Jews. He has based Le concert on an amalgam of historical incidents, based on the record of Antisemitism in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.

With all the recent hoopla over 1989 and the Gorbachev perestroika and glasnost that helped to bring about the fall of the Soviet Union, it is worth remembering the darker days that preceded Mr. Gorbachev. Brezhnev appeared to be a throwback to the days of Stalin and his henchmen, especially as regards Soviet Jews. Writes Professor Christie Davies in The Social Affairs Unit blog:

Official anti-Semitism was also popular. It gave the most menial of workers someone to hate, someone to blame, someone to despise. Your vilest traditional prejudices were endorsed and encouraged by your rulers. Newspapers deliberately stressed the Jewish identity of Jews executed for economic crimes…

Without miring us in historical detail, Mihaileanu focuses instead on the memory of Lea, the violin soloist whose ouster from the Bolshoi has left a lasting mark on all who knew her. The director’s choice of French actress Mélanie Laurent uncannily parallels the fictional 'faux Bolshoi' conductor’s selection of a French soloist to replace – or is it replicate? – Lea. Actress Laurent speaks of her own Jewish roots: her grandfather, like Mihaileanu’s own father, was also a Communist who resisted Nazi persecution.

So there it is: a feel-good movie that isn’t lightweight; a comedy with a serious side; a film where music’s role is central but does not require a degree in Tchaikovsky studies…Le concert is a touching film, a fitting addition to Mihaileanu’s growing body of respected work.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus
119 mins. In French and Russian.

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