Radu Mihaileanu's The Concert is a lesson in the importance of art -- its ability to fill the soul and transform even the least satisfying life, if only temporarily.
Constructed as a comedy, The Concert will make you laugh because of its culture-clash trappings. But it will also choke you up, as it reveals just how art -- in this case, the music of Tchaikovsky -- can ameliorate sorrow and redeem disappointment, just by soothing the brain and spirit with its existence.
The setup is surprisingly simple: The janitor at the Bolshoi in Moscow, having been upbraided for interrupting an orchestra rehearsal with his ringing cell phone, is banned from watching rehearsal -- and admonished for not cleaning the orchestra manager's office to his liking. Left alone to finish the job, the cleaner intercepts a fax from a French concert hall, looking for the Bolshoi Orchestra to be an emergency replacement when another orchestra cancels at the last minute.
In fact, the janitor is Andrei Filipov (Alexei Guskov), who, 30 years earlier, was stripped of his position as conductor of the Bolshoi Orchestra for standing up to Brezhnev. Several of his musicians were Jews and Filipov protested Brezhnev's plan to either deport them or send them into the Soviet gulag. As a result, he was interrupted mid-concert, dubbed an enemy of the people and prevented from performing or conducting.
Now Filipov sees his chance: He steals the fax from the French theater and hatches a scheme to reassemble his old orchestra. Together, they will show up for the gig, masquerading as the Bolshoi -- and perform the Tchaikovsky Concerto for Violin and Orchestra that had been interrupted 30 years earlier.
He enlists his best friend, a former cellist and now ambulance driver named Sacha (Dmitry Nazarov). Together, they strong-arm Gavrilov (Valeri Barinov), the former KGB official who halted the performance 30 years ago and who used to manage the orchestra, into negotiating the deal with the French (since his French is marginally better than theirs). Gavrilov has an agenda of his own: the chance to immerse himself in the kind of Parisian luxury he once enjoyed.
Mihaileanu's script offers another emotional linchpin: Andrei's insistence that the violinist for the performance be Anne-Marie Jacquet (Melanie Laurent), a hot classical star whose career he's obviously followed closely. Through flashbacks, we get hints about just who she might be and what she seems to mean to him. The secret eventually is revealed -- and it coincides with her performance in an emotional crescendo that is truly stunning.
The Concert builds to this moment -- and to a moving performance of the Tchaikovsky piece, after first working its way through some nimble comedy about the various former musicians suddenly set loose from their grim Russian existence on the magical streets of Paris. The blend of the audacity of the lie that Andrei is bringing to life, the variety of responses by the musicians and the everpresent threat of discovery keep the story moving forward, however implausibly at times.
What holds it together is the blend of melancholy, longing and barely suppressed excitement of the central characters. They are unlikely heroes: people who have been repressed and suppressed all of their lives, unsure how to react to the sudden freedom they have tasted. In particular, Guskov, as Andrei, captures the sense of a dream deferred, now suddenly within his grasp. Laurent, as the self-possessed young violinist, is his counter, a serious musician with unspoken dreams of her own.
The Concert is a feel-good film and a revelation, a movie that celebrates the idea that a thing of beauty is a joy forever. And that it can also be good for a few laughs.