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The Pianist By Matt Singer
Only a movie as powerful as The Pianist could have sustained my interest at Movie City in Edison, NJ this evening. By some fluke of luck - the same fluke that always seats me in front of these people - the elderly gentlemen behind me chose to eat his popcorn so loudly that it echoed through the room, nearly decimating the emotional power of some of the quieter scenes. No amount of shushing or turning around could stop this man from SMACK SMACK SMACKing his popcorn until he was finished. It was like trying to watch a movie and drive a car at the same time - utterly distracting. Yet even Chewy Chewerman’s most obnoxious moments could not sway my attention from this excellent film.
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The Pianist, or “The Pee-Ann-ist” if you believe the commercials, is a Pole named Wladyslaw Szpilman, who plays piano on the radio. His performances are locally famous, probably because Szpilman is so dedicated to his art that even a shelling of his studio won’t stop his performance. Szpilman lives in Warsaw with his family, and the first half of the film chronicles the town’s descent into horror as the Nazis impose their slow progression of restrictions on the Jews, eventually corralling them into a ghetto. This half of the film, a sad, desperate hour, is comprised of elements I suspect are taken from director Roman Polanski’s own memory as a survivor of the Krakow ghetto. While Szpilman’s story encompasses the foreground, the edges of the frame are filled out with quiet stories of desperation and sadness, like the random raids by the S.S. where whole families were slaughtered while others could do nothing but peer out their windows in horror. Moments like these feel disturbingly authentic and could have come only from a director’s personal experience.
When the ghetto’s population is sent to camps, Szpilman escapes, and we follow his slow, arduous journey of survival. It is in this second half that star Adrian Brody earns his Oscar nomination, as Szpilman’s casual musician’s charm gives way to inhuman torture. In a De Niro-esque transformation, Brody’s body wastes away along with his character’s, until his face seems almost entirely nose and grizzled beard, and his clothes appear several sizes too large for his frame. The performance is as impressive emotionally as it is physically; as Brody gives us a huge range of emotions and plays much of the final hour of the film alone on screen in silence, but always commands our attention.
Polanski’s film is a controlled work, with a structure that fills us with nearly as much hope as sadness. His work is not flashy, but his recreation of Warsaw is striking; streets of bombed-out houses shock us so deeply we wonder how such a faithful recreation was created and where such a feat was accomplished. In moments of suspense, his control of tension is perfect - the mastery he displayed in Rosemary’s Baby is apparently as easily recalled a skill as bike-riding. If he has any troubles assembling or directing large skilled casts or garnering budgets large enough to make the films he wants while exiled in Europe, it is not in evidence here.
With The Pianist, I have, for the first time in my life, seen all the films up for Best Picture. I enjoyed four out of the five nominees immensely (The Hours was merely acceptable). If I was voting for the “best” I’d have a hard time picking between this film and The Two Towers. They are very different films but both that achieve that rare, special place in your memory where you can’t imagine life without them.