Doc about Warsaw’s prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition hits all the right notes
Dir: Jakub Piatek. Poland. 2023. 91mins
It’s one of the most prestigious – and fiercely competitive – contests in the world of classical music. The International Chopin Piano Competition, held every five years in Warsaw since 1927, can launch the career of a young musician. It can also break them, through a perfect storm of pressure and public scrutiny. This is concert piano playing at an Olympic standard, the point at which untutored ears can hear nothing less than perfection. Which is why Jakub Piatek’s enjoyable and involving documentary about the 2021 event smartly focuses on the personalities, the behind the scenes drama, the parallel coming-of-age narratives, as much as it does the music. It’s a winning combination: the grand passions of Chopin’s music mirroring the tortured ambitions of the competitors, all of whom know that their future – celebrity or anonymity – rests on the outcome of these few days.
The film works because of a satisfying balance of personalities and approaches
Pianoforte, which was co-produced by HBO Max, screens at CPH:Dox having premiered at Sundance – the second of director Piatek’s films to debut in Park City following his fiction feature debut Prime Time. It’s a potential crowd pleaser which could connect with audiences far beyond those with an existing interest in classical music. It could easily sustain a theatrical release, buoyed by a likely positive critical reception and warm audience word of mouth.
Piatek makes astute choices in the musicians that he follows through the competition – which is watched by the people of Poland and beyond with a fervour usually reserved for sporting events – and has an impressive hit rate of subjects who make it through to the final twelve. But the film works because of a satisfying balance of personalities and approaches. Hao Rao, for example, is a gauche teenager from China, still at high school and balancing the demands of his academic studies against his music. His parents in Guangzhou have a scrapbook filled with the train tickets he has accumulated travelling around the country to perform and compete.
Around the same age as Hao Rao is Eva, a Russian Armenian pianist with a Rapunzel-plait and a despot of a music professor who browbeats her continuously. Eva vibrates with anxiety, her smile freezing in discomfort as her professor savages her technique. One of the more questionable decisions on the part of the filmmakers is to emphasise Eva’s vulnerability in service of the film’s dramatic tension, the camera hovering vampirically outside of the bathroom while she weeps.
But even those players who are seemingly the most confident can crumble. Dashing Marcin has packed extra strength hairspray to hold his foppish coif aloft, but succumbs to nerves in the second round. Michelle, from Italy, is plagued by dreams of a zombie invasion; her compatriots Leonora and Alexander are the only two who seem to be having fun at the event. Leonora swigs wine and jokes about getting a Chopin tattoo; elegantly dishevelled Alexander trails a slipstream of cameras and autograph hunters.
Crisply edited and smart in its use of sound, the film even dares to veer away from the hallowed ground of Chopin’s music – a choice which playfully emphasises the rock star credentials of these rising talents on the classical music circuit.
Production company: Telemark
International sales: Submarine firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Maciej Kubicki
Cinematography: Filip Drozdz
Editing: Ula Klimek-Piatek