A glossy, music-themed, historical meller that suffers from a basic structural flaw and the resulting flatness of pace and tone, "The Pianist" has a nice feel for transgenerational showbiz relationships in its story of two gifted boyhood pals who share a love for music but choose very different careers against a backdrop of social and political upheaval. Unfortunately, pic comes alive only when someone approaches a keyboard, and basic understanding of Spanish history from the '30s to '80s is a help. Home auds may take a shine to the work, which benefits in its backstage milieu from debut helmer Mario Gas' extensive theater work.

A glossy, music-themed, historical meller that suffers from a basic structural flaw and the resulting flatness of pace and tone, “The Pianist” has a nice feel for transgenerational showbiz relationships in its story of two gifted boyhood pals who share a love for music but choose very different careers against a backdrop of social and political upheaval. Unfortunately, pic comes alive only when someone approaches a keyboard, and basic understanding of Spanish history from the ’30s to ’80s is a help. Home auds may take a shine to the work, which benefits in its backstage milieu from debut helmer Mario Gas’ extensive theater work.

Finishing a gig in mid-’80s Barcelona, famous composer Lluis Doria (Laurent Terzieff) is taken to a boisterous transvestite club, where he discovers to his astonishment that the lifelong friend from whom he is estranged, Albert Rossell (Serge Reggiani), is the house pianist. At this point a provocative two-hander seems in the offing, with old lions squaring off to hash out the past.

Instead, story then stumbles badly, moving back four decades and promptly becoming bogged down in a lengthy rooftop gabfest that intros the younger Rossell (Pere Ponce), newly sprung after seven years in prison for aiding anti-Franco anarchists and reunited with Teresa (Paulina Galvez), with whom he shares an obviously intense history. Seg finally wakes up with an exuberant, impromptu boogie-woogie that spills out onto the streets.

The tuneful time machine then takes us to mid-’30s Paris, where the risk-taking Doria and sensible Rossell (Jordi Molla) first met, with a shared passion for music first and Teresa second. When civil war beckons, Rossell and Teresa commit to one life and Doria to another.

Scripter Gustavo Hernandez says much care was taken to preserve the framework of Manuel Vazquez Montalban’s novel, the gambit being that the story is more poignant when told in this order. But effect is disruptive to fundamental character development, helped not a bit by unintentional howlers like “That fool Satie!” and “I’m moving to the Left Bank: It’s all happening over there!” Tellingly, the film’s most moving scene is an almost wordless coda in which the fates of all three principals are powerfully revealed.

Pic is at its best evoking the passage of time and the toll of life choices on the central characters — the result of astute casting for the leads across the years. Vets Terzieff and especially Reggiani are terrific expressing the weight of their decisions in essentially bookending perfs, while Molla and Ponce vividly convey the exciting world of avant-garde Paris but strain in some scenes requiring the headstrong energy of youth.

Technically, the movie is easy on the eyes and music to the ears. Each period has a distinct feel, and Raul Roman’s intriguing editing sells completely each actor’s simulated authenticity at the ivories. Score is awash with Mompou, Mozart, Albeniz, Chopin and others, in between the urgent original piano themes of composer Carles Santos.

The Pianist

Spain

Production

A Massa d'Or Prods./Tornasol Films production. (International sales: Tornasol , Madrid.) Produced by Maria Luisa Passola. Directed by Mario Gas. Screenplay, Gustavo Hernandez, based on the novel by Manuel Vazquez Montalban.

Crew

Camera (color), Tomas Pladevall; editor, Raul Roman; music, Carles Santos, others; production designer, Pep Olive; sound (Dolby), Albert Manera; associate producer, Gerardo Herrero. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 14, 1998. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Lluis Doria (age 20) ..... Jordi Molla Albert Rossell (age 25-35) ..... Pere Ponce Teresa (age 20-30) ..... Paulina Galvez Lluis Doria (as an old man) ..... Laurent Terzieff Albert Rossell (as an old man) ..... Serge Reggiani (Catalan, Spanish and French dialogue)
With: Walter Vidarte, Adolfo Fernandez, Marc Martinez, Dorotea Barcena, Vicky Pena, Duna Jove, Eva Santolaria.
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