Antonio Banderas. Copyright El Deseo. Photo credit: Nico Bustos, c/o Sony Pictures Classics.Pedro Almodóvar’s superb new film, Pain and Glory, which bursts with autobiographical references, deals with creativity in a most novel way. It’s the story of a film director, Salvador Mallo (a graceful, subtle, nuanced Antonio Banderas), who is blocked creatively and consumed by physical pain: tinnitus, wheezes, headaches of all kinds; and what he calls pains of the soul – anxiety and tension. When we first meet him, he’s in a swimming pool trying to alleviate his back pain by exercising. He remembers, as a child, watching his mother, Jacinta (a radiant Penelope Cruz), singing A tu vera, a popular Spanish song from 1964, along with three other women, all doing their laundry at a river. It’s a happy memory, seeing his mother so joyful, and as he escapes into it, the soundtrack supports him with quizzical strings whose mysterious melody backs up the voice of a clarinet.

Penelope Cruz and Asler Flores (young Salvador). Copyright El Deseo. Photo credit: Manolo Pavón, c/o Sony Pictures Classics.A cocktail piano in a bar triggers a second memory. A priest, who is the choirmaster in a seminary where ten-year-old Salvador is a student, is playing the same tune on an upright keyboard and auditioning potential choir members. Salvador sings so well that he becomes the soloist and is told to cut geography and other classes in favour of practising music. He would eventually learn about geography as a filmmaker travelling the world.

In another scene, Sabor, a film Mallo made 32 years earlier, is being revived and the director has been invited to attend the screening for a Q & A. He looks up its star, Alberto Crespo, whom he has not seen for three decades and they smoke heroin. Another childhood memory – living in a cave house in a village in Valencia with his parents – takes over, supported by aspirational string music, gentle and optimistic. (Almodóvar insisted in a New York Times profile that the autobiographical references in Pain and Glory do not not include smoking heroin. Nor did he live in a cave house, for that matter.)

Pedro Almodóvar (left) and Antonio Banderas. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.“If you write about a director (and your work consists of directing films),” Almodovar wrote in his notes to the film, “it’s impossible not to think of yourself and not take your experiences as a reference... My house is the house where Antonio Banderas’ character lives, the furniture in the kitchen – and the rest of the furnishings – are mine or have been reproduced for the occasion and the paintings that hang on its walls. We tried to make Antonio’s image, especially his hair, look like mine. The shoes and many of the clothes also belong to me, and the colours of his clothing.”

In the film, Grace Jones’ version of La vie en rose evokes the disco era of the late 1970s – a touchstone for Mallo’s Addiction, a theatre piece about an intense love affair that Crespo is performing. Almodóvar’s notes explain that Cómo pudiste hacerme esto a mí by Alaska y Dinarama, which accompanies the cinematheque screening, puts a date on the film – the mid-80s. It also, Almodóvar explains, pays tribute to Alaska y Dinarama’s Carlos Berlanga, who wrote the song – one of the great icons of that time and a much-loved friend of his.

“I’ve looked for artists (actors, painters, musicians) with whom I am familiar and, in most cases, with whom I have grown,” Almodóvar has written. “There are many works by the painters Guillermo Pérez Villalta, Sigfrido Martín Begué, Jorge Galindo, Manolo Quejido, Miguel Ángel Campano, Dis Berlín, etc. All from the late 70s and with whom I have been shaped in more than one sense. This is one of the most autobiographical aspects of the film. It is all familiar to me.

“And of course, going back to the music, the presence of Chavela Vargas and Mina, who belong to my emotional and artistic family,” he continues. “From Mina I have chosen Come sinfonia to accompany the entire scene of the watercolour sketch [a pivotal memory]. It’s a theme from 1960, full of delicacy and the feeling of an idle, pleasurable summer. Chavela bursts into the middle of [Crespo’s] monologue with a verse from La noche de mi amor (The Night of My Love), exultant, infinite in its clamour. I want the joy of a ship returning, a thousand bells of glory pealing, to celebrate the night of my love.”

Chevala’s song in the film represents Mallo’s great 1980s love affair, which is resolved at the end of the Addiction theatre piece. By the end of Pain and Glory, Mallo’s random memories have borne fruit, the cycle of artistic creation has been activated, fuelled by long-ago desire.

Alberto Iglesias has composed the soundtrack for all of Almodóvar’s films since 1995. Here, his companionable, fully integrated score is linked to three different “atmospheres” according to the director. The first is inspired by the sunlight of the Valencian village memory; the second is linked to Mallo’s moments of pain and isolation, often adopting faster, repetitive patterns, more frantic musical movements or little tremors. The third sound, “luminous in its simple spirituality,” accompanies the scenes with the elderly Jacinta and grown-up Salvador, in Madrid, with the music adopting the mother’s spiritual attitude towards death. Iglesias won the Cannes Soundtrack Award for his intensely moving score.

And Banderas won Best Actor at Cannes for his warm, humanistic performance.

Pain and Glory opens at Cineplex Varsity & VIP on October 25 and at TIFF Bell Lightbox on November 1.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Luciano Pavarotti. Photo credit: Sacha Gusov, c/o Mongrel Media.One sunny spring Saturday afternoon in the early 1980s, I happened to be walking through Little Italy in Lower Manhattan when I was transfixed by a glorious operatic aria spilling into the street from a nearby store. I had never heard singing more beautiful. The music drew me into its source, an Italian butcher shop. I asked the butcher what he was listening to and he told me it was the Met live broadcast. “Who’s singing?” I wanted to know. “Pavarotti,” he said. As I left the shop to continue my walk, I like to think that the whole neighbourhood was filled with that incredible tenor voice. I had suddenly joined the millions of fans of Luciano Pavarotti.

Pavarotti, the new documentary by celebrated filmmaker Ron Howard, is an engrossing portrait of an outsize personality that focuses on the musical career of a man considered to be the greatest tenor of the last half of the 20th century: a man of great appetites and even greater empathy, whose golden voice carried with it an unsurpassed emotional quotient that resonated with all who heard it.

Howard, working with the same team that produced the dynamic doc, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, had unprecedented access to Pavarotti’s estate: photographs, recordings, video, home movies and interviews, both vintage and newly minted for the film. The movie opens with one of the most astounding clips of all. The year is 1995 and the place is Manaus, Brazil, in the thick of the Amazon jungle. Here, in the little opera house known as Teatro Amazonas, where Caruso himself once sang 100 years before, Pavarotti is seen in his sweatpants accompanied by a piano, pouring forth with total abandon for a handful of passers-by. Flutist Andrea Griminelli – who shot the footage – pointed out that the trip up the Amazon followed a concert for 200,000 people in Buenos Aires.

Much of the rare footage Howard used came directly from the personal collection of Nicoletta Mantovani, Pavarotti’s second wife, the mother of their daughter Alice and head of the Pavarotti Museum in Modena. Mantovani also arranged many of the new interviews, including those with opera stars such as Plácido Domingo and Angela Gheorghiu, as well as Pavarotti’s first wife and their three daughters (all three of them born within four years and seven months of one other), whose insights into his home life add immeasurably to an understanding of this complex artist. His daughter Giuliana, who loved his costumes as a child, once cried out “Papa” when she saw him shot dead in Tosca.

The film contains many nuggets, especially in the first act of Pavarotti’s real-life three-act arc – for instance, that he learned to breathe (“which is the most simple thing but the most difficult”) from Joan Sutherland when they toured Australia together; he saw how firm her diaphragm was before she attacked any note. Other such moments in the film: Gheorghiu pointed out that soprano and baritone voices are natural, but to become a tenor is unnatural, and “you must have the high C.” Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo said, “A tenor voice is constructed, not natural; a great tenor makes it feel natural.” American soprano Carol Vaness: “Luciano’s voice always went straight to my heart – clear, passionate, beautiful, heaven on earth, truly.”

Pavarotti was born in 1935 in Modena, Italy, the son of a baker “and a tenor.” He made his debut in 1961 as Rodolfo in La Bohème; two years later, he performed the role at Covent Garden as a replacement for an ailing Giuseppe Di Stefano. But it was Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, with its nine high Cs, that made him famous. As the film progresses, we learn why he held a white handkerchief and how he was a nervous wreck before every performance at the Met. “I go to die,” he would say.

His second act was centred on the Three Tenors; rock music promoter Harvey Goldsmith adds colourful anecdotes along the way. Nicoletta Mantovani tells us that her husband wanted to be remembered for bringing opera to the masses and that he surely succeeded. By the third act of his life, the Pavarotti and Friends period, he had cemented relationships with the likes of Princess Diana and Bono, was raising money for his children’s charity, and expanding into collaborations with pop stars. By the time of his death in 2007 from pancreatic cancer, the charismatic performer had been seen by more than ten million people and sold more than 100 million albums.

In a film so filled with music that it makes any attempt at cataloguing it an exercise in futility, Pavarotti’s voice reigns supreme, both as a man and as an artist.

Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir. Photo credit: Nikola Dove, c/o A24.By contrast, the two dozen or so snippets of music that are used to punctuate, comment on or simply bridge scenes in Joanna Hogg’s artful, coming-of-age, quasi-autobiographical new British film, The Souvenir, couldn’t be more dissimilar to Pavarotti’s richly mined vein. Set in the early 1980s, The Souvenir tracks a love affair between Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a guileless, well-to-do film student, and Anthony (Tom Burke), a seemingly posh Foreign Service Officer.

Their relationship is swollen with mystery and presented in a series of perfectly composed cinematic postcards, often with painterly care and dialogue that rings true. Swinton Byrne (whose real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, plays her mother in the film) has an appealing naturalism that makes no effort to conceal the emotions her romance often brings to the surface. Burke’s caddish, dissembling character nevertheless does charm his younger lover, pushing her buttons with allusions to the cinematic world of Powell and Pressburger. (“We don’t want to see life played out as is, we want to see life as it is experienced within this soft machine.”)

Most of the music excerpts are contemporaneous, like The Specials’ Ghost Town, Gary Numan’s Metal or The Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way; most take up less than a minute of time. Some, like Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding and Joe Jackson’s Is She Really Going Out with Him?, directly comment on what we’ve just seen. The use of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Verdi’s La forza del destino activate a sense of foreboding that gets our attention. As does Hogg’s carefully calibrated film.

Pavarotti is currently playing at Cineplex Varsity & VIP. The Souvenir is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Robert Glasper (left) and Herbie Hancock. Photo c/o MIRA FILM.This ambitious music-centric chronicle of the history of Blue Note Records manages to tie the current Blue Note All-Stars – pianist Robert Glasper, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott – to the past by adding vintage Blue Note luminaries Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock to the recording session celebrating the 75th anniversary of the label which is the film’s fulcrum. Shorter and Hancock talk about the atmosphere in their early days with Blue Note, where the intention was not to make a hit: “I never got the sense of pressure from them to create in any particular way, other than whatever might come out of me,” Hancock says. “The goal was to allow the music to emerge without being shackled.”

Their conversation leads us back to the groundbreaking musicians who were the foundation of the company’s legacy: Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Miles Davis. None of it would have happened without its soft-spoken, jazz-loving founders who gave the artists complete freedom and encouraged them to compose new music.

Alfred Lion (left) and Hank Mobley. Photo credit: Francis Wolff.Alfred Lion and Francis (Frank) Wolff were German Jews, boyhood friends in Berlin, who fled the Nazis in 1933 for the US and started Blue Note in 1939. We hear a portion of a radio interview in which Lion (born in 1908) remembers hearing jazz for the first time when his mother brought a record home in 1926. “I was very much impressed with what I heard, not knowing it was jazz,” he said with his distinctive German accent.

Wolff said of his first encounter with jazz, also in Berlin: “I couldn’t understand the music. I just liked it.”

Sophie Huber, the documentary’s Swiss-born director, summed it up: “This is a story about people who followed their passion and – against all odds – built a lasting platform for a music they loved, a music that was cathartic, and represented freedom, both to the German-Jewish founders and to the African-American musicians.”

“I don’t think they ever lost the purity and the innocence that came with it,” says legendary producer Don Was, current president of Blue Note.

Key to the story was the joining of Lion and Wolff with recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, a New Jersey optometrist whose home studio was the source of Blue Note’s transparent, balanced sound (“It was my parents’ home, and I was allowed to use the living room to record my jazz music. They allowed me to put a control room window in one of the walls to the living room. And I brought all the equipment in there to record my jazz music.”), and Reid Miles, a classical music-loving commercial designer. Lion’s uncanny A&R instincts, Wolff’s stylish photography (he photographed almost every recording session from the early 1940s to the late 1960s), Van Gelder’s sterling sound quality and Miles’ striking cover artwork plus the inimitable music. The Blue Note catalogue parallels jazz history from hot jazz, boogie-woogie and swing through bebop, hard bop, post-bop, soul jazz, avant-garde and fusion. Another key is the re-affirmation of hip-hop as the natural outgrowth of jazz.

From Monk to Coltrane, Lion, who was close to his artists, encouraged them to write new work. And he had an idea of how the music should sound. The result is a back catalogue that is the source of half the company’s revenue. Blue Note records became the go-to for sampling. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s Ode to Billy Joe is their most-sampled track.

Miles Davis. Photo credit: Francis Wolff.Major components of this treasure trove of a film are Wolff’s vivid photographs, recordings of outtakes, banter between the takes, concert footage of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and others, and old radio interviews with Art Blakey and Coltrane. The musicians voices are paramount.

As Norah Jones puts it: “The reason I love being on this label is because I’ve always felt like I had that freedom – to make my own music and do whatever I want and I don’t feel confined by the restrictions of the jazz genre.”

Alfred Lion couldn’t have put it better.

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes plays Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema March 29 to April 7.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Affairs of the Heart: The Life and Music of Marzan MozetichA film titled Affairs of the Heart: The Music and Life of Marjan Mozetich, produced and directed by Jamie Day Fleck, and in which I make an appearance, was given its premiere showing March 1 at the most recent edition of the Kingston Canadian Film Festival. The title of the film borrows from what is arguably Mozetich’s (b.1948) most successful composition, the violin concerto Affairs of the Heart, composed in 1997/8 for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and violin soloist Juliette Kang, with the support of a commission from CBC Radio Music. Filmmaker Fleck told me her story of hearing a broadcast of the concerto on CBC Radio Two while driving, and her need to remain in her car after reaching her destination in order to learn the identity of this stunning work.

Affairs of the Heart: Violin Concerto (1997). Photo by Jamie Day FleckMozetich says that Fleck’s story is similar to those of scores of CBC Radio listeners he’s heard from. The so-called “driveway experience” is even mentioned in the CD’s liner notes.

Early in the film, Mozetich remarks, “The music I write has this kind of spatial quality to it: distance and landscape.” On his website, he also applies the term postmodern Romanticism to his style. These are characteristics that have helped to make his music immediately appealing, so much so that he has become the most frequently broadcast Canadian classical composer. But it had not always been the case.

Prior to 1980, Mozetich had been struggling to conform with the aggressively modernist approach embraced by his young composer colleagues. In fact, in 1978, the year I created the CBC FM Radio network contemporary music series, Two New Hours, I chose an emphatically modernist Mozetich work, his Disturbances for solo viola – a piece we had recorded for broadcast on Two New Hours – as one of the CBC Radio submissions to the International Rostrum of Composers (IRC) in Paris. The IRC is a contemporary music meet-up sponsored by public broadcasters from some 35 countries, and organized by the International Music Council. It has been running with the participation of public broadcasters since 1954. Mozetich’s dramatically dissonant Disturbances was broadcast in several counties as a result of its presentation by our CBC delegation in 1978. He might have used this opportunity to advance his reputation as one of the emerging new voices in advanced contemporary composition. But he didn’t.

At a crucial point in Fleck’s film, I recount how a work I commissioned in 1979 for CBC Radio supported Mozetich’s decision to change his artistic direction. On the heels of his presentation at the IRC, Mozetich and I began a series of frank discussions in which he questioned the modernist approach. He complained that he was fed up with musical modernism and declared his intention to do something about it. We offered him a commission for Two New Hours to prove his point. The work he created, a delightfully tonal and exuberant composition titled Dance of the Blind, did more than offer a new approach. It was, for Mozetich, a watershed composition that strikingly displayed his new Romantic, accessible style, redefining his artistic voice. Accordionist Joseph Petric was the featured soloist in the work. “He had a lot of courage to do that,” Petric remarks in the film, “because it wasn’t a very popular style. And yet he’s become, in time, the most performed composer in the country.”

Dance of the Blind was recorded and broadcast on Two New Hours in 1980. “After the national network broadcast,” Mozetich said, “there was no turning back.” It didn’t take long before many more commissions were offered. In 1981, the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (CEE), the live electronic music group I co-founded in 1971, commissioned him to compose a work called In the Garden. In the process of our working together on the composition with Mozetich, he shared some rather candid thoughts about his working process. He confessed that, as his bedtime reading material, he would bring the great Romantic orchestral scores. He read Dvořák, Mahler, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky avidly. “You can learn a lot from those guys,” he remarked. He responded to our commission with a virtuosic display for electronic keyboards. The CEE members decided to digitally sequence the entire score, for both ease and accuracy of performance. The work became a core composition in the CEE’s repertoire, and was performed frequently on tour.

In 1984 the Music Gallery in Toronto invited Mozetich to prepare a retrospective concert of his music. It was a mixture of music from the early 1970s, and three works in his new postmodern Romantic style. We recorded the concert for broadcast on Two New Hours. Listeners to the broadcast were struck by the individuality of the music. It was another significant watershed moment, one that many people noticed. A 15-year-old Chris Paul Harman, a loyal Two New Hours listener even as a teenager, and now one of our leading contemporary composers, and a professor of composition at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, listened and was impressed. Harman remembered the program: “The first sounds I heard consisted of abrasive scratch tones played by a string quintet; these eventually gave way to vigorously bowed passages outlining clustered pitch collections, in turn leading to a plaintive modal chant and finally, an austere dissonant chorale. When finished, the work was identified as Serenata del nostro tempo (1973) by Marjan Mozetich. There followed an interview in which Marjan explained how he had eschewed such sensibilities to embrace a lighter and more whimsical style in works such as Fantasia...sul un linguaggio perduto (1981). I was absolutely intrigued. How does one reinvent one’s self in such a manner? Is one such ‘self’ more authentic than another ‘self?’”

In the course of producing that concert recording and broadcast, I had mentioned to Mozetich that his quartet, Fantasia...sul un linguaggio perduto (...on a lost language), might work well in an adaptation for string orchestra. He subsequently did just that, and his string orchestra adaptation has become one of his most performed works. Not too many years later, in 1989, CBC Records accepted my proposal to make a CD of Mozetich’s music on their Musica Viva sub-label. The CD, titled Procession, included the Amadeus Ensemble, a string ensemble led by Moshe Hammer, joined by guest soloists Joseph Petric, accordion, and harpist Erica Goodman. The recording included several important pieces in Mozetich’s developing style, such as Dance of the Blind, the string orchestra version of Fantasia... sul un linguaggio perduto, and his 1981 work for harp and strings, El Dorado.

It was this latter work which revealed the special feeling that Mozetich had for the harp. As Mozetich told me: “It all started with El Dorado and my friendship with harpist Erica Goodman. It was with this work that it all gelled with me and the harp. Over the years Erica commissioned three other works with harp which have all been recorded. I think it is the unique resonance and visual allure of the harp that attracted me to it. Subsequently I wrote four quintessential harp pieces, Songs of Nymphs, that are performed by numerous harpists around the world. To date I’ve written seven works with significant harp parts.” One of those harp pieces, The Passion of Angels, actually includes two harps: Mozetich wrote the work in 1995 on a commission from CBC Radio Music, for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and harp soloists Nora Bumanis and Julia Shaw.

Mozetich moved to the Kingston, Ontario area in 1990, initially to find the solitude he needed to compose. The move was just what he needed, and many of his most successful scores come from the post-1990 period. In 1992, he wrote the imposed Canadian work for the Banff International String Quartet Composition, supported again by a commission from CBC Radio Music. The quartet, Lament in the Trampled Garden helped the St. Lawrence String Quartet win not only the Banff competition overall, but also the award for the best performance of the imposed work that year. In Fleck’s film, Barry Shiffman, one of the founding members of the St. Lawrence says: “After winning the competition we went on to share that piece that he wrote in concerts all over the world.”

Jamie Day Fleck with Marjan Mozetich.  Photo by Perry WalkerAll the repertoire on the CD, Affairs of the Heart, was composed during this period. Besides the violin concerto that gives the CD its title, there is the double harp concerto, The Passion of Angels, and a set of short pieces for string orchestra, Postcards from the Sky, composed in 1996. Vancouver producer Karen Wilson, who was managing the CBC Radio Orchestra at the time, had met Mozetich while serving on an arts council jury. They hit it off, became friends, and when that fateful broadcast of Affairs of the Heart created scores of “driveway experiences” and CBC switchboards lit up all over the country, she knew she would have to quickly get a proposal together for the CBC Records selection committee. The recording with the radio orchestra under Mario Bernardi, and soloists Juliette Kang, Nora Burmanis and Julia Shaw, went flawlessly, and by the summer of 2000, the CDs were being scooped up by the truckload by thousands of consumers who couldn’t get enough Mozetich into their listening lives. Randy Barnard, who was the managing director of CBC Records at the time, said: “A Canadian composition outpacing core repertoire was a rarity, never mind becoming a bestseller in the catalogue.” The original CBC Records CD has been out of stock for years, but it’s now available as Centrediscs catalogue number CD-CMCCD 21815. For ordering information, see: cmccanada.org/shop/CD-CMCCD-21815.

Mozetich has made an impact in the Kingston community since settling there almost 20 years ago. In the film, Glen Fast, conductor emeritus of the Kingston Symphony notes: “I think Kingston knows they’re lucky to have him here, in this position as a composer, as a real music maker, as a substantial composer with his own voice.” Mozetich also taught as an adjunct professor of composition at Queens University most of those years. He retired from that position last June. John Burge, who, along with his teaching at Queens, is also in charge of the Queens Faculty Artists Series, commented in the film: “I know that if I can find a way to integrate Mozetich’s music into the concerts that we put on in Kingston it’ll make everyone happy. And I can tell you, that if we present a concert that has Marjan’s music programmed, there will be people that will come because they just want to hear Marjan’s music. They just want to see him walk up onstage and talk about his music.”

As for hearing live performances of Mozetich’s music this month, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra and music director Bradley Thachuck will perform his Postcards from the Sky on Saturday, April 27 at 7:30pm and Sunday, April 28 at 2:30pm in the recital hall in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines.

David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.

Never Look Away bannerTom Schilling as Kurt Barnert. Photo credit: Caleb Deschanel, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away – nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography Oscars – paints a vast canvas chronicling the turbulent times in Germany from 1937 to the mid-1960s. It’s loosely based on the life of famed German artist Gerhard Richter but as it hits some major historical notes of the mid-20th century – Nazism, Communism, master-race eugenics and the Berlin Wall – it does so in the context of its central character Kurt’s love for two women, both named Elisabeth.

Saskia Rosendahl as Elisabeth May and Cai Cohrs as Young Kurt Barnert. Photo credit: Caleb Deschanel, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.As a child, Kurt was under the thrall of his aunt, Elisabeth May, who encouraged his love of art. Indeed, the film opens in 1937 when the two of them attend the Dresden exhibit of decadent art (immaculately and beautifully rendered by the director and his legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel). Kurt once watched his aunt play Bach’s lovely Sheep May Safely Graze (from Cantata No.208) on the piano in the nude. (Not since Luis Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty has the instrument been so artfully exploited.) It was her last moment of freedom. As she is taken away to be institutionalized, composer Max Richter’s post-minimalist score picks up on the Bach for an apt variation, recurring later when Kurt is at art school. The second Elisabeth, a fellow student at the Düsseldorf Academy, is the daughter of a notorious gynecologist, Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) who was responsible for the death of Kurt’s aunt.

Sebastian Koch as Professor Carl Seeband. Photo credit: Caleb Deschanel, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.Koch, who was one of the key cast members in Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 Oscar-winner The Lives of Others, plays the villain in the new film. Koch’s relationship with the director is highly collaborative and he has described his character Professor Seeband as a monster. “He is ice-cold and domineering. But what is truly monstrous about him is that he is convinced he is doing the right thing. There is no feeling of wrongdoing, no sense of guilt. He does what he does because for him there is absolutely no alternative.”

Henckel von Donnersmarck’s work with Richter was crucial. “[Richter’s] orchestral piece November [from 2002’s Memoryhouse] was the leitmotif for the film,” the director said. “It accompanied me throughout the entire filming and editing… He is a man of deep knowledge and great wisdom. His music has true healing power and is always incredibly beautiful.” By 1940, Elisabeth’s impending sterilization is underlined by a wrenching, ominous moment in the score. The end of WWII is played out to Handel’s Dixit Dominus.

Though nothing in Never Look Away rises to the level of November, Richter’s post-minimalist shards of emotionalism serve to buttress the complex relationships between the painter, the eugenicist and the two women who link them.

While Never Look Away is just now (February 22) opening in Toronto, two other Best Foreign Language Film nominees I profiled in The WholeNote’s September issue are still going strong in local theatres as the Academy Awards loom on February 24.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Cold War. Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media.Pawel Pawlikowski’s epochal love story Cold War, nominated for three Academy Awards – Foreign Language Film, Cinematography and Direction – stands out for its cinematic artistry and fervour. Cold War begins and ends in Poland, with stops in Paris, East Berlin and Split, Yugoslavia as it journeys from 1949 to 1964. Wiktor and Zula’s love is deep and true but subject to the political vagaries of the era it inhabits. Both are musicians who meet through music (of which there is a wide variety, from traditional Polish folk to 1950s jazz). Pawlikowski depicts it with rigorous attention to detail. Filmed in stylish, enhanced black and white, with compelling performances by Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, Cold War succeeds at every level.

The music credits for Cold War are a treasure trove of traditional Polish folk music, with almost two dozen excerpts; the jazz side features Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Kulig and Kot doing Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy. What wraps up this musical odyssey? A few moments of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s all a not-to-be-missed cinematic experience, due in large part to its crucial musical component.

Zain Al Rafeea (right) and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole. Photo credit: Fares Sokhon, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.Nadine Labaki’s emotionally potent film Capernaum, about a 12-year-old Lebanese boy who sues his parents for giving him life, won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. It’s another worthy nominee contending for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Labaki’s husband Khaled Mouzanar produced the film and composed the score. To fit what Mouzanar called “the poverty and rawness of the subject,” he wrote a “less melodic score than usual using dissonant choral melodies that seem to disappear before they can be grasped, as well as synth-based electronic sonorities.” Crucially, he chose not to “underline or highlight emotions that were already sufficiently intense.”

Any one of these Oscar contenders would make for ideal viewing in the days leading up to Sunday’s awards ceremony. And for months and years in the future for that matter.

Never Look Away opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on February 22. Cold War and Capernaum continue their Toronto runs.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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