A disgraced conductor tries to reunite Russia's Bolshoi Orchestra.
An era ended last week with a whimper, not a bang, as Disney finally dumped hit-starved Miramax Films, selling it off to a private investment group for $660 million. Once fronted by larger-than-life brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the mini-studio had a miraculous run in the ’80s and ’90s marketing independent and foreign-language films to the masses. Hardcore cineastes scoffed at the Weinsteins’ relentless championing of the middlebrow, often leaving more challenging fare to languish on their overcrowded shelves. But say what you will about Harvey and Bob (and I’ve said plenty), Miramax’s golden age brought subtitles into the multiplex. There aren’t a lot of people on the level of marketing genius that could make Pablo Neruda a household name while scoring Oscar nods for Il Postino.
Distributed by the Weinstein Company, the brothers’ post-Disney, perpetually cash strapped startup, Radu Mihaileanu’s The Concert, is precisely the kind of picture that the old Miramax machine could have kept running for months on end. It’s a sweet-natured, agreeable-enough diversion, with just enough high culture, rowdy comic relief and flirtations with historical import that it’s comfort food for art-house patrons of a certain age. Perhaps because lately this particular audience seems to have migrated toward Swedish potboilers about tattooed ladies and sexual assault, The Concert’s charms feel nostalgically pleasing.
Sad-eyed Alexi Guskov stars as Andrei Filipov, once a revered conductor of Russia’s Bolshoi Orchestera, now a disgraced janitor. Thirty years ago, Andrei made the poor career choice of blowing off Brezhnev’s orders to fire his Jewish musicians, and the ensuing decades have not been kind. And yet redemption lurks on the horizon, as one day when polishing the brass in the blowhard Bolshoi director’s office, Andrei intercepts an invitation from Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. Why not get the old band back together instead? It shouldn’t be that difficult to impersonate an orchestra, right?
Working from a script by Mihaileanu, Alan-Michel Blanc and former Spielberg protégé Matthew Robbins, The Concert skips jauntily over this scenario’s myriad implausibilities, piling on the colorful characters and broad stereotypes. There’s much discussion of “The Slavic Temperament,” which I believe in this case is code for drunken boisterousness. Assisted by his bearish, ambulance-driving cellist (Dimtri Nazarov) and a hilarious former KGB stooge (Valeriy Barinov), Andrei enlists Gypsy fiddlers to forge passports and even persuades a tone-deaf gangster to sponsor the trip.
But melodrama lurks beneath the buffoonery. France’s melancholy violin superstar Anne-Marie Jacquet (played by Inglourious Basterds’ lovely Melanie Laurent) is asked by our gang to solo on a Tchaikovsky concerto, and her mysterious family secrets are slowly (too slowly) revealed in ever-expanding flashbacks. We’re not just watching boozy Russians squander their per diems in the City of Light—there’s also the stuff of tragedy, bumping uncomfortably against the outsized antics.
The Concert’s pleasures, however minor, come from the old underdog formula, as it’s tough not to want this ragtag band of misfits to show up those stuffy Parisians and recapture their glory. Mihaileanu made his mark with the (ahem) unconventional Holocaust “comedy” Train of Life, and here applies a similar, high-spirited fairy-tale M.O. to skim over the tale’s more unsavory elements. The movie works better as slapstick than historical commentary, though a riotous detour involving Barinov’s hard-line party man combines both rather adroitly. I’d happily sit through another half-hour of the shoe-banging Trotsky-ite discovering that Communism ain’t what it used to be, especially since the old French headquarters is now a Moroccan belly-dancing joint.
Mihailenau sticks the landing, wisely letting Tchikovsky and Laurent’s expressive eyes do most of the heavy lifting involved in making an audience buy that an orchestra can just pick up their old instruments and bring the house down without even a single rehearsal. The Concert serves up 12 minutes of uninterrupted play. In the end, it’s only the music that matters, which I guess maybe is the point.
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