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SUNDANCE 2023 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Review: Pianoforte


- Jakub Piątek has crafted an elegant, tender, yet thrilling documentary about the participants in the famous International Chopin Piano Competition

Review: Pianoforte
Marcin Wieczorek in Pianoforte

Polish helmer Jakub Piątek returns to Sundance, after showing his narrative debut, Prime Time [+see also:
film review
interview: Jakub Piątek
film profile
, there in 2021, with his feature-length documentary Pianoforte, revolving around the International Chopin Piano Competition that takes place every five years in Warsaw and can assure a successful career for the winner and runners-up. The movie, screening in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, shows that the contest is exhausting and demanding – in 1990, 1995 and 2005, no one won it – which only makes the stakes higher and the emotion more intense than that which we find in Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude”. And it makes the efforts of Whiplash’s Andrew (Miles Teller) seem like a walk in the park.

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Piątek follows a few select contestants (in 2021, 87 pianists entered the competition, and after three rounds, only 12 qualified for the final) without really knowing how long they will spend locking horns for the award. Since the competition is very popular in Poland – and getting tickets to the concerts is nearly impossible, as this reviewer has learned – there will be little suspense about the outcome for those who followed the event, especially among classical-music aficionados. But even if one knows the results, Pianoforte is thrilling and delightful to watch (and to listen to!), as Piątek and his team don’t just follow music rivalry, but also focus on who the rivals are. Every protagonist has a different background, personality and level of dedication to Chopin, as well as their own quirks. Chinese contestant Hao Rao loves eating crisps, Poland’s own Marcin Wieczorek teases his cat, and Italy’s Leonora Armellini plays Metallica in between bursts of mazurkas and sonatas. We get a peek into the pianists’ private and pre-competition lives, and it’s highly amusing to see one of them practising for hours on end, with only the family dog listening (and having nightmares because of it, too), or another sitting in a small kitchen with his parents, fine-tuning his hand movements.

But the mastery lies not in the perfection of hand movements alone – Piątek’s documentary also explains why one excellent concerto is better than another, and how the personality of the pianist and storytelling through music are way more important. The narrative is somewhat classical, fuelled by the timeline of the competition and the tension around each stage as the contestants are gradually eliminated, one by one. Some go home, while others go to give interviews and sign autographs, with the Chopin craze reaching its peak.

Piątek has admitted that he isn’t really involved in classical-music circles, which works in his favour and makes the characters more relatable. Pianoforte is a curious and subtle observation of what could be the toughest and most demanding discipline in the world, with the players struggling more against their own fears, limitations and the human need for rest, rather than against each other. The parallel with sports is clearly drawn here, as Piątek shows Jewa Gieworgian’s workout in the gym and Alexander Gadijev’s mental training. Only the fingers touch the piano keys, but the entire body, mind and soul are involved in the process. Just as Chopin would have wanted it.

Pianoforte was produced by Maciej Kubicki through Poland’s Telemark, and co-produced by HBO Max, the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, the Mazovia Institute of Culture - Mazovia Film Fund and MX35.

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