Movie Review: “God of the Piano”

The mystery and the guilt associated with it drives the cryptic Israeli drama “God of the Piano,” a movie that gives away so little that the viewer is invited to fill in around the edges, early and often.

Anat (Naama Preis) looks like a ballerina and plays the piano like a rising star of Israeli classical music. She’s so committed to her instrument that when her water breaks, mid-concert, she toughs it out to the end. Her obligations are to the composer, the audience and her instrument. The baby? It can wait.

He is born before his father (Ron Bitterman) can make it to the hospital. There’s a suggestion Dad might not be faithful.

So she’s there, by herself, when she gets bad news. Anat will consider the unthinkable in “solving” this problem, and when we meet her family, we understand. Composers, performers and teachers, their expectations for every new member of the clan are formidable.

Can little Idan live up to the family legacy? As we watch him (Andy Levi) emerge as an ideal and seemingly enthusiastic student, a playing and composing prodigy, taught by the very best, we think we have the answer.

“God of the Piano” is a brisk drama, with a narrow focus that means that it skips by without providing every answer to every question it asks. Like its central character, Anat, it is enigmatic, furtive.

She has a secret she’s keeping from her husband, her son, her family and the world. Like the protagonist of Poe’s “Tell-tale Heart” the guilt has to eat at her, right? Especially when she keeps getting mail from a school the hospital once recommended for her son.

And even so, that first secret leads her to others.

First-time feature director Itay Tal touches on many themes and ideas in this Hebrew language (with English subtitles) story, from fierce interfamilial competition to professional jealousy of the “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach” variety, to a whole “nature vs. nurture” prejudice that reveals, in just a scene or two, what that word really means — “pre-judging.”

Classical music isn’t usually about bloodlines. It’s about who taught you and who taught her, hopefully all the way back to Chopin or Liszt or one of the giants. Here, that’s twisted.

A telling scene, Anat’s father and revered teacher (Ze’ev Shimshoni) visibly pales when he gives the kid a piece he wrote when he was the same age as the boy (12). Inad sight-reads it, playing beautifully, and in an “Amadeus” touch, proceeds to “improve it.” Damn his eyes.

That whole dynamic, that the child is preordained to greatness or mediocrity by blood and birth, is undercut in the film. It’s either troubling or amusing to consider, seeing as how this story all takes place in a land whose dominant culture lives as self-described “chosen people.”

Tal has created a spare and provocative debut feature, one that sucks you in even as he introduces more challenging ideas than he could possibly address fully in 80 spare minutes.

MPAA Rating: unrated,sex

Cast: Naama Preis, Andy Levi, Ze’ev Shimshoni

Credits: Written and directed by Itay Tal.  A Film Movement release.

Running time: 1:21

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