Review: Young People Thrive—and Crumble—Under Pressure in Competition Doc Pianoforte

Taking a page from the Spellbound playbook, Polish-born director Jakub Piatek (Prime Time) follows a handful of young contestants in the world-famous International Chopin Piano Competition, held every five years in Warsaw, Poland. With a premiere at Sundance nearly a year ago, Pianoforte profiles young musicians from all over the world, most of whom have studied piano their entire lives and have been deemed the best the globe has to offer. The competition begins with 160 contestants, with only five being announced as the best of the best. 

Each player performs the same compositions in each round, and as the stakes get higher, the young people—some of them only kids—start to show signs of stress. One clear front-runner (a young man from Poland) drops out early because he realizes the depression he would sink into if he lost would be more than he could handle. Meanwhile, another young woman from Italy is so comfortable with her knowledge of the material and her abilities, she barely engages in any of the many elaborate warm-up exercises that others do religiously. There’s no doubt she’s a bundle of nerves like everyone else, but she should win a medal for hiding her anxiety the best.

Pianoforte is an exercise in slowly ramping up tension while watching a repeating cycle of performances and emotional release. The contestants psych themselves up or out just before they play, then the performance occurs (often flawlessly, to our untrained ears), and then they come off stage trembling as the tension is released, followed by a wave of self-doubt that they won’t make it to the next round of 80 or 40 or 10. A few of the players have their piano teachers in tow and the strangeness of those relationships might be the most fascinating part of this movie. Some are borderline abusive; a crowd-favorite girl from Russia is not allowed to sleep, and I was certain she was going to pass out before the film ended, while another performer from China has such a close relationship with his teacher that everyone mistakes her for his mother.

But it’s watching them all play so beautifully that is the highlight of Pianoforte. Director Piatek isn’t here to show anyone in their most embarrassing moment. Instead, we get to see them soar as if possessed by the spirit of music. They make faces and perform gestures they probably aren’t even aware of, and we’re treated to extended sequences of Chopin’s music that frequently takes our breath away. Some of the kids make friends, others stay fairly isolated, but there’s never any doubt that the level of dedication and amount of exhaustive practice results in some truly lovely playing.

The film opens exclusively at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.