An intricate story of music, passion and destiny about a violinist who stumbles upon the unknown, Jewish half of his family, “Canone Inverso — Making Love” unfolds first against the rise of Nazism in pre-World War II Prague and continues in 1968, as Soviet tanks invade the city. While this pedigree literary adaptation seems conventional and old-fashioned, the polished production is sufficiently engrossing to find a commercial platform wherever solidly crafted European drama is appreciated. Pic likely will appeal to the same audiences who got on line for “The Red Violin.”
Released domestically in dubbed Italian in early spring with robust grosses of close to $3 million, the Cecchi Gori production premiered in its original English-language version in the Cannes market. While it lacks the dramatic sparks of Ricky Tognazzi’s more distinctive, contemporary-set work like “La Scorta” and “Ultra,” the film represents a skilled entry into English features for the Italian director following his 1998 HBO telepic, “Excellent Cadavers.”
Based on the novel by Paolo Maurensig, story takes its title from a traditional musical composition for two instruments known as an inverse canon, which is played from the first to the last note by one instrument and, simultaneously, from the last to the first note by the other. A rare violin and the memory of one such composition is all that was left to a humble farm woman (Rachel Shelley) and her son, Jeno, by the boy’s father, who was Jewish.
Hurrying through his childhood — during which he develops an instinctive talent for the violin, often playing to soothe the pigs on their way to the slaughterhouse — the drama picks up on adolescent Jeno (Hans Matheson) following his mother’s death. His admiration for the music of Sophie Levy (Melanie Thierry) draws him to the acclaimed French pianist, a Jew whose concerts frequently have been disrupted by Nazi skirmishes. Sophie is married, and despite the obvious affinity between them, she sends Jeno away, encouraging him to apply for a scholarship to the music conservatory.
At the school, Jeno meets rakish young aristocrat David Blau (Lee Williams), who becomes the other important figure in his adult life. So deep is their friendship that when David is expelled from the conservatory along with other Jewish students and faculty members, Jeno insists on leaving with him. At the Blau estate he makes a surprising discovery when he recognizes an inverse canon composed by David’s father, the baron (Tognazzi), as the music his mother hummed throughout his childhood. The revelation of a family connection causes conflict between Jeno and David, whose destinies are entwined again, together with that of Sophie, at a concert in Prague.
Unlike some other recent attempts by Italian filmmakers to crack the international market, screenplay by Tognazzi and regular co-scripters Graziano Diana and Simona Izzo shows a reasonably good ear for English dialogue.
Where the script perhaps could be improved is in its cumbersome double-flashback structure, relying heavily on voiceover. The story is recounted first following a violin auction in 1970 by a young woman (Nia Roberts) to the buyer, revealed to be the now elderly Baron Blau (Peter Vaughan). This account merely serves as a link to the same woman’s meeting in Prague two years earlier with a mysterious violinist (Gabriel Byrne) who seems to have insight into her past. But despite the somewhat schematic literary approach, the story’s complex threads are satisfyingly woven together.
Performances generally are fine, with Matheson and Williams bringing plenty of vigor and spirit, and Thierry (“The Legend of 1900”) — who resembles a younger Emmanuelle Beart — supplying some delicate grace notes. In a minor role, Byrne has little to do but look soulful while spouting enigmatic dialogue.
Classical music enthusiasts will respond to Ennio Morricone’s richly sonorous, emotionally stirring score, while Fabio Cianchetti’s elegant widescreen lensing gives the handsomely appointed production and Czech locations a classy look.