Just one short decade ago Harvey Weinstein might have shepherded a film like The Concert to both box office gold and Oscar glory. Its hallmarks are those on which Miramax, during its glory days when the Weinsteins were still at the helm, established its reputation: funny, heartfelt, tasteful, unabashedly European and profoundly humanistic right down to the marrow. Today, under the Weinstein Company banner, the film will be lucky to register even a blip on the independent landscape, with Oscar nominations an even loftier expectation. Though audiences for such films are far from diminished, the lingering independent distribution vacuum has considerably diminished the resources for releasing them, likely limiting this picture's first-run take to a handful of coastal markets where arthouses and their patrons haven't yet gotten the downsizing memo.
Romanian-born director Radu Mihaileanu's latest French-language feature harks back to his popular 1998 Train of Life, a film which, at the time, was perhaps too close in proximity to Life is Beautiful to withstand unfair comparisons between the two. Truth be told, Mihaileanu's sensibilities are markedly more romantic and hopeful than those of Roberto Benigni, qualities that are on even bolder display here. The story centers on a once renowned Russian conductor whose refusal to cow to Soviet-era anti-Semitism destroyed his career, dooming him to a job as the Bolshoi's janitor. But when he intercepts an urgent fax requesting that the Bolshoi step in to replace a cancellation at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, an unwieldy, impossible scheme to resurrect his career-and those of his similarly disgraced former colleagues-begins to take shape.
It is, by any stretch of the imagination, a preposterous venture requiring the participation of so many disparate elements-including the former KGB agent (Valeriy Barinov) responsible for eviscerating his reputation in the first place-that any sense of the believable evaporates almost instantaneously. But Mihaileanu's goal has little to do with the maintenance of verisimilitude-if anything, this is Kusturica-lite, Eastern European angst seasoned with Francophone sentimentality (thanks to the sterling work of the magnificent Mélanie Laurent and the ageless Miou-Miou) to produce a gentle parable about forgiveness, redemption and the persistence of impossible dreams.
Fans of Train of Life will undoubtedly embrace the picture's similarly ragtag collection of clever, lovable misfits, a shaggier but no less lovable rabble afflicted by the same sense of mischief and fierce determination. But here, as before, the reward comes without any sense of malice or retributive ill will-the fruits are Mihaileanu's infectious optimism and faith in the human spirit.
The lingering dearth of uplifting fare in the independent and foreign arena should prove a boon to The Concert in the long term, even if its short-term earnings don't live up to historic Weinstein benchmarks. Indeed, Mihaileanu's sparse output-just five films in thirty years-puts him in a rarified class of underexposed directors (Malick, Kubrick, Rappeneau) for whom the "event" of each new film becomes a marketing hook unto itself. That said, those fortunate enough to have the chance to see the film in theatrical release should do so without hesitation; as a shared experience it's all the more rewarding.
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Cast: Alexei Guskov, Dmitry Nazarov, François Berléand, Mélanie Laurent, Miou-Miou and Valeriy Barinov
Director: Radu Mihaileanu
Screenwriter: Radu Mihaileanu, Alan-Michel Blanc and Matthew Robbins
Producers: Alain Attal
Running time: 119 min.
Release date: July 30 NY/LA, August 6 Exp.