SIFF 2015: Virtuosity (Christopher Wilkinson, 2014)

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.

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Every four years the best young pianists in the world descend upon Fort Worth, Texas for the Cliburn Competition, the World Series of people playing impossibly complex classical music. The eventual winner is bestowed with an instant career of studio recordings and global performances. The losers get by, biding their time before entering their name again 48 months later. Christopher Wilkinson’s serviceable if occasionally busy documentary tracks roughly a half dozen contestants at the 2013 competition.

Documentaries that shine a light on a specialized subset of society have become so commonplace that it feels as though every two-bit convention and cult oddity has already been unearthed and overexposed. With this saturation comes a familiarity with the narrative’s conventions. To Virtuosity‘s detriment, we can tell just by the camera’s focus who is going to make the finals, long before the names are announced. On the other hand, the film has a natural villain hanging out on the margins and it chooses to let him recede, sidestepping an easy angle. (It would have been a fun bit of schadenfreude to see this confident man fail, however, had he been given more opportunities to hang himself.)

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While the film is mostly focused on the performances and the personalities of the pianists (“artists” doesn’t feel like the right word for these technically impressive but creatively quiet individuals) the narrative does find time to wander down a few side avenues. The most interesting thread highlights two different critical analyses of the same performer that basically exposes the whole notion of competition at this expert level as a sham, dependent upon the fickle whims of an older generation the world has already passed by.

Speaking of getting passed by, the most tantalizing story here is the one left untold. What happens to these talented individuals once the competition ends? What paths do these kids follow once they’re considered simply the the sixth best pianist in the world? One character alludes to being dropped back on the street. That is a sequel worth paying to see. Call it Reality.

(Virtuosity plays 5/20 at SIFF Cinema Uptown, 5/21 at the Harvard Exit, 5/24 at Lincoln Square.)