Documentary Review – “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements”

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A child’s hearing-loss is “corrected” by cochlear implants, leading to him wanting to perform Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.

The boy’s deaf grandfather faces the perils of old age, adding new maladies to his lifelong one.

And the boy’s filmmaker-mother ponders them both, the meaning of it all, the rewards that losing one’s hearing can offer your focus versus the challenges and even prejudices that historically face the hearing impaired, and presents their story and her conclusions in a documentary, “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements.”

Irene Taylor Brodsky wrote, directed and narrates this very personal documentary, sharing the story of when she and her husband (never named or mentioned, but on camera) discovered that “family genes have a way of arriving unannounced.”

Their first-born was going deaf in toddlerhood, just as her own mother did.

Brodsky’s camera captures little Jonas, singing or humming to himself, bonding with his very-understanding (both deaf) grandparents, learning to speak but talking in the indistinct enunciations of the hearing-impaired.

But Brodsky’s parents had cochlear implants, and even doing that at an advanced age changed their lives. The daughter ponders what they gained and what they lost as Jonas has the operation and takes up the piano, ambitiously wanting to learn Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (one movement of it, anyway) before The Big Recital.

Brodsky uses the example of Beethoven, who lost the distractions of the world as he lost his hearing, composing works based on what he could hear in his head, and of her father, who invented TTY (a means for deaf people to use the phone), in opining that “silence gave us all something really valuable… It shaped who we were.”

Dad is more sanguine. “You can’t understand the world through your ears,” so you adjust. He had a fruitful career, married and raised a family (none of their children were deaf). But as “Moonlight Sonata” was filming, he faced new adjustments — a life shrinking around him due to his advancing years.

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Brodsky uses music, animation and simple footage of Jonas trying to practice the piano in a house with noisy younger siblings and a puppy to make her point. Being able to tune that “storm” out, literally by pulling the magnet plug off his skull, must be a blessing to Jonas, who is a cute, mop-topped and precocious kid. He still has good piano lessons and bad ones. He acts out like any 11 year-old, even one who has taken on the daunting task of learning a movement of this subtle, emotional sonata.

The kid’s other grandfather, a pianist himself, foreshadows how the film will treat the boy’s performance at that recital, explaining to Jonas the difference between playing to please oneself as opposed to playing in public.

It’s a meditative movie, as one underscored with Beethoven’s solo piano pieces “Moonlight Sonata” and “Für Elise” would have to be. Brodsky isn’t the first to get across what it feels like to experience the world without hearing it, so she doesn’t dwell on that, even if it is her central thesis.

The “Three Movements” are as arbitrary as you’d expect a framing device like that, mimicking the “Sonata” itself, to be.

Mostly, what she gives us is an appreciation for the progress science has made in diagnosing and remedying hearing disabilities, and the merest hint of the way not hearing shapes how the mind works when forced to confront the world without aural stimuli.

In that portion of the film, she asks more interesting questions than “Moonlight Sonata” can really answer, leaving this “Sonata” incomplete.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated

Credits: Written, directed and narrated by Irene Taylor Brodsky An Abramorama release.

Runing time: 1:29

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