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Trained documentarist Juraj Lehotský, continues to explore his interest in fiction with the striking emotive and meditative drama, Plastic Symphony (Plastiksümfoonia).
The director takes his audience on a journey, one that cannot be appreciated until the final frames. There are moments where the film feels shallow, hampered by the concept of the plot and a filmmaker unwilling to make bolder choices. By its end, however, we’re left with a film that expresses the virtue of simplicity, that doesn’t lack an emotional punch.
The story centres on Matúš Vrba (Bartosz Bielenia), a talented cellist who mysteriously disappeared five years earlier, leaving behind a promising career in music. He unsuccessfully auditions for the first cello in the Slovak Chamber Orchestra, where he’s quizzed about why he left his studies with the Berlin Philharmonic. A man of few words, he succinctly tells them it was because his mother was dying. When he’s asked where he currently plays, he says, “Vienna.” The truth has a touch of quirky romanticism – accompanied by his stepbrother Dávid (Vojtech Zdrazil), he plays Beethoven on the streets of Vienna under a plastic sheet when it’s raining.
By chance, he meets former schoolmate Albert (Sabin Takbrea), a successful violinist and music programmer. It’s a meeting that opens up the world of lucrative performances in high society. Matúš’s life is transformed, but as the fame of Albert’s quartet grows, Matús finds himself unsettled about the choices he has made. Also, the necessity to compromise on performing his own compositions, in favour of playing popular pieces for the pleasure of the elite, quietly suffocates him
I’m forced to conceive the impression that Lehotský is in love with the face of his lead actor. The way he frames Matúš, feels as if we’re being asked, or urged to read his unspoken thoughts – to look and to understand, instead of having the character explain. Yet it’s not only his silence that is captivating, but a hypnotic vibe that he carries throughout the film. There’s an almost ethereal presence, where the silent facial expressions and body language, the movement and the way he handles the cello, or composes, has its own melody and rhythm.
Plastic Symphony aspires in part to forge a communion with musical (non-lyrical) expression by creating a space for the audience to be in the presence of the character – not to listen to him, but sense his aura and read his unspoken thoughts.
One of the film’s intriguing points is its minimalist nature. Before we near the half way point, we learn little about the siblings, other than that Matús left his studies when their mother was dying, and we suppose the two have taken care of one another. Lehotský understands the necessity of patience, and when we finally learn the bare details of their shared history, it’s significantly more impactful.
Structured as a film of two halves, it’s a play on a rags-to-riches tale, albeit it’s not as dramatic in the juxtaposition. We think of creativity as being full of soul and character, which is in abundance in the first half. As Matús enters high society and he finds himself in the orbit of Albert’s musical celebrity, this begins to fade. We also find ourselves lamenting how the struggle, and the film was formerly more interesting.
As our journey with Matúš reaches its conclusion, Lehotský’s modest vision can and rightfully should be appreciated. He’s a filmmaker in command of his craft, supported by Bielenia who learnt to play the cello for the role. If there’s a theme or idea that comes into bloom, it’s how transformative our encounters can be, but also our willingness to be independently minded, and pursue what will offer meaning and purpose. Plastic Symphony is about how some people belong, while others create a place to belong. It’s a simple and powerful idea worth meditating on.
Plastic Symphony has just premiered in the Official Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.