If documentaries were judged on the worthiness of their subjects, “Beatocello’s Umbrella” — about Beat Richner, the doctor/musician who plays the cello around the world to support the five state-of-the-art Cambodian children’s hospitals he founded and operates — would surely take the prize. Certainly viewers come away from Georges Gachot’s fifth feature inspired by one man’s amazing ability to turn his humanitarian ideals into a functioning reality that saves thousands of lives. Less inspiring, however, is the sight of Cambodian doctors and nurses tearfully viewing an early film about Richner and gushing their adoration into microphones. “Umbrella” functions better as fund-raiser than as film.
Predictably, Gachot covers Richner’s endless but wholly fulfilling hours of rounds, consultations and administrative decisions. A more interesting aspect of this latest hagiography, though, is the contrast between Richner’s work at the hospital and his never-ending, far less soul-satisfying PR work: the political and financial machinations required to keep the hospitals running. Not only are these five children’s hospitals free (patients pay nothing), but they regularly dispense money for food and transportation to the poorest parents. Richner himself speaks with dismay about the unrelenting pressure of having to conjure up millions every month.
This life-saving/fund-raising duality forms the underlying logic of Gachot’s documentary; unfortunately, it’s structured too haphazardly to foreground that logic. In fact, when not placed in context, the double nature of Richner’s endeavors can unbalance the film, calling into question the spontaneity and authenticity of what the camera records: A scene in which a young woman and her mother emotionally recall her against-all-odds survival is later theatrically replayed for potential donors, leaving unprepared viewers feeling duped. And not one but two long stretches of screen time showing Richner bowing and smiling at Cambodia’s king, who bows and smiles right back, redundantly conveys the tedious political diplomacy necessary for government support.
Similarly, endless scenes of Richner performing on the cello feel excessive, particularly given Gachot’s penchant for splicing sequences from a 1978 film by Werner Groner into the mix. Granted, Richner’s former tall, thin, tuxedoed elegance under his signature red umbrella contrasts mightily with his balding, paunchy present-day self, huffing and puffing his way through Bach in formal appearances at European churches or weekly Saturday concerts in Phnom Penh. But amid the undifferentiated mass of cello playing on display, it’s left to the viewer to extrapolate signs of Richner’s exhaustion with these donor-courting rituals from his actual love of the instrument.
More scenes of Richner’s admirable efforts in the hospital and fewer expressions of admiration by the doctors and nurses he trains would also have helped to anchor the film’s sincere but repetitive hosannas.