God of the Piano review – icy family drama is a virtuoso debut

Cath Clarke
·2 min read

A classical pianist gives birth to a hearing-impaired son in Israeli director Itay Tal’s impressive feature debut. You could interpret his film as an allegory of tiger parenting and other child-raising techniques with gimmicky names. And the script raises all sorts of questions about whether talent is innate, how far it is influenced by genes, and whether it needs to be developed while young. Tal refrigerates these questions into an elegant and disturbing family drama that has echoes of Michael Haneke: it’s a film with a shard of ice lodged in its heart.

Naama Preis is the pregnant pianist, Anat, who is on stage when her waters break. Not missing a beat, she carries on playing, amniotic fluid trickling into her shoe. At the hospital, routine tests reveal that her baby son is deaf – further investigations will be needed. I watched what Anat does next with my hands covering my face; it is a heart-stopping moment of scary-but-not-scary cinema.

The story then skips ahead a few years. Anat has given up the piano to focus on moulding her son, Idam, into a musical prodigy. He performs in public for the first time aged seven or so. Later, there’s an unbearably tense scene as he sits down at 12 to play in front of the wider family after dinner. All of them are pianists, and musical greatness is the only measure of success. Anat’s father, a well-known composer, demanding and severe, is hypercritical of the boy’s technique. Through all of this Anat’s face is inscrutable, impossible to read. Is she numbed by guilt or has being raised in this toxic environment warped her self-esteem and sense of family life?

Another director would insert epic meltdowns here, but Tal keeps things cool and collected – and his supremely satisfying film gets the job done in 80 minutes.

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