Saturday, August 7, 2010

THE CONCERT (July movie release)

This review was originally published at Christianity Today online.

The Concert's story line begins believably enough. The Communist Party apparatchik who controls the Soviet Union's prized Bolshoi Orchestra orders symphony conductor Andrei Filipov (Aleksei Guskov) to fire his Jewish and Gypsy musicians. The conductor refuses, and the agent of the all-invasive state lays off all the orchestra's musicians and reassigns the conductor to the role of janitor at the Bolshoi. Russia's legendary anti-Semitism renders the story's initial premise soberly credible.

Several decades later, we find the conductor-turned-janitor on his knees, cleaning the office of the man who had fired him. He hears the fax machine whir as it disgorges an urgent invitation for the Bolshoi to fill a last-minute vacancy at a prominent Paris concert hall. Filipov steals the invitation, rounds up his old musician friends—now driving an ambulance, dealing in black market cell phones, and even dubbing moans and groans for pornographic films—and offers them the chance to play again, as the Bolshoi, before an appreciative Paris audience.

The current orchestra, he tells them, "sounds like mating cats." We are much better, he says.

The Concert (in French and Russian with subtitles) is a rarity—a nonviolent revenge movie. (Compare its lack of carnage, perhaps, to Redford and Newman's 1973 The Sting.) The film's protagonist wields not an assault rifle but a conductor's baton. But he will get back at those who interrupted his search for "ultimate harmony."

These musicians haven't played together for 30 years. Some of them are rusty, and director Radu Mihaileanu shoots this ragtag bunch and their shabby Russian surroundings with a wobbly hand-held camera to emphasize the decay that set in under Communist rule. The Paris scenes, by way of contrast, are shot with care and polish to underscore the advanced economy of French society.

As the former Bolshoi musicians organize for their trip to Paris, the story line turns ludicrous and sets the stage for much comic relief. Can they pull it off? Can they convince the director of the Paris theater that they're the real thing? Can they acquire the necessary full-dress clothes and instruments? Can they raise the money for transportation? Can they handle the overwhelming details of transporting, housing, feeding, and rehearsing a touring orchestra?

One major theme of The Concert is the relation of the genuine to the fake and of the real to the pretentious. This is fitting, since it was Russian society that gave us the persistent myth of the Potemkin village in which a nobleman is said to have built fake villages in the Crimea with which to impress the empress, Catherine the Great. Thus we learn that the ex-conductor's wife has an unusual profession: supplying "guests" for weddings, "mourners" for funerals, and "protestors" for political rallies. Because a wealthy gangster with few friends wants to stage a bigger wedding celebration than his rival, the conductor's wife rounds up 1,000 rent-a-guests. The gangster is a satisfied customer in a Potemkin society.

Like the wedding party and the political protest, the Bolshoi orchestra is both real and fake. It is made up of real, albeit rusty, musicians who are posing as the orchestra they used to be.

Similarly, the unfolding story gives us hints of more deception—some sort of secret that surrounds the identity of Anne-Marie Jacquet (Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds), the up-and-coming French violin virtuoso Filipov has insisted must play the Tchaikovsky violin concerto for the Bolshoi's Paris concert. (To say more about that would be a spoiler.)

Ultimately, the film revolves as much around idealism as it does around revenge. Ivan Gavrilov (Valeri Barinov), a Communist Party hack who is bullied into serving as the impromptu orchestra's manager, yearns for the rebirth of idealistic Communism. He fervently preaches hope at a sparsely attended gathering of the withering French Communist Party. Conductor Andrei Filipov also lives in hope, dreaming of completing the concert that had been interrupted 30 years earlier and of resolving the tensions surrounding the identity of his chosen soloist. He speaks alternately of reaching "ultimate harmony" and simply settling for happiness.

In the end, the movie is resolved by a kind of miracle. As the out-of-practice orchestra begins its painful performance, Gavrilov, the atheistic party hack and manager, looks up and says, "God, if you're really there, work a miracle."

After the orchestra recovers its mojo (thanks in no small way to the soaring brilliance of Jacquet's performance), the same party hack exclaims, "Oh my God. I don't believe it. You exist."

At the end of composer Armand Amar's masterful 12-minute condensation of the 22-minute Tchaikovsky concerto, the concert hall resounds with applause, and Gavrilov utters the film's next-to-last word: "Amen."

The film's final word? "Bravo." And that's my judgment as well.


  1. This sounds more intellectually and spiritually satisfying than the thematically similar Inglourious Basterds (which I thought was brilliant in its own disturbing way). I look forward to seeing it, on your recommendation.

    Congratulations on your "grand opening." May your blog become the Next Hot Thing, driving thousands of net-surfers to your doorstep, there to be edified, amused, and once in a while even confounded.

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  2. Thanks, David, for this nice review. Radu Mihaileanu is a Jew of Romanian origin, living in France.
    You should also see 'Train de vie', an even more hilarious take at Begnini's homorous 'La vita e bella'.

  3. Danut: "Train of Life" (1998) is not available from, so I'll have to forgo it. But another film by Mihaileanu ("Live and Become") is listed, so I've ordered it.

    All three films are about people pretending to be something they're not. In "Train of Life," Jews dress up as Nazis and take their fellow villagers on a fake deportation train in order to escape real Nazis. In "Live and Become" an Ethiopian woman pushes her young son to pose as one of the Falashas (black Jews) who are being taken to Israel to start a new life. And in "The Concert" Jewish (and Gypsy) musicians pose as the Bolshoi Orchestra.

    Sounds like there's a theme to Mihaileanu's work.