Pianoforte (Kino Lorber, NR)

Competitions are a popular subject among filmmakers because they provide a ready-made structure—there’s a clear beginning, middle, and end thanks to the competition itself, as well as obvious stakes that all the participants are striving for. That holds for documentaries as well as narrative films, and the competitions provide a natural hook for audiences as well—even if you care nothing about spelling bees or ballroom dance contests, let alone who becomes Mr. Universe or gets into the school of their choice, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement, to pick your favorites among the strivers, and to feel vicarious pride or dismay when the outcome arrives, as it inevitably must.

The narrative spine of Jakub Piatek’s documentary Pianoforte is provided by the 2021 International Chopin Piano Competition. Founded in 1927 and currently held every five years in Warsaw, the Chopin Competition is one of the most prestigious musical contests in the world, offering a prize of 40,000 Euros and a gold medal to the winner. Even more important, winning this competition can provide the kind of boost that makes the difference between being one talented young person among many and becoming the rare musician that has a successful international career.

Pianoforte offers a rare view of the backstage aspect of a high-stake musical competition in which many of the performers have already won other prestigious international prizes. The Chopin competition may be especially grueling, as it runs for 21 consecutive days, with competitors passing through a number of elimination rounds. In 2021, of the 87 who performed in the first round, 45 made it to round two, 23 to round three, and 12 to the final. There’s one other twist that makes the Chopin competition unusual: only the music of one man, the Polish composer and piano virtuouso Frédéric Chopin, is performed—solo piano pieces for the early rounds, a concerto with orchestra for the final.

Piatek chose a collage-like structure for Pianoforte, so we see little snippets of one competitor after another. Much of the time is spent off the competition stage, as they get massages, pump iron, test out the different brands of piano available, fiddle with their clothing and hair, consult with their teachers, and of course do a whole lot of practicing. Some are identified by name via chyron, but it’s easy to lose track of who is who, particularly since they’re all young adults (contestants must be between the ages of 16 and 31). This structure makes it harder for the director to tap into the natural audience instinct to pick a favorite, although fortunately he does focus on a subset of contestants who can be easily differentiated by appearance and manor. Mixing the stories the way Piatek does serves another purpose: it emphasizes how much these young and very talented musicians have in common, despite their different national origins and cultures.

You may wonder what high-stakes competitions have to do with music, but it’s really quite simple: there are far more musicians with the talent and accomplishments to have a career than there are slots for them to fill, and winning a big contest is an obvious way to separate yourself from the pack. If you don’t believe me, just ask Van Cliburn (metaphorically speaking, of course). The contestants themselves are aware of this paradox: as one puts it, she’s not there to “express my feeling through music” but because she wants “a career and stability in the future” and winning this competition is a ticket to the latter.

Music is mainly heard in short bursts in Pianoforte, but what you do hear is beautiful. The contestants are also impressively articulate about what they’re doing and why, and there’s not one who gives the impression that they regret their choices. Watching these young people, I have a feeling similar to what I get from watching gymnastics in the Olympics—wonder that human beings can do such things at all, and even more that so many people can do them at such a high level. It’s true that only one person gets to be the winner of this contest, but they’re all amazingly accomplished and should find great success in their lives. | Sarah Boslaugh

Pianoforte is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber. There are no extras on the disc.

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