PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 20: (L-R) Piano instructor Vivian Li, professional pianist Hao Rao, and film director Jakub Piatek attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Pianoforte” Premiere at Egyptian Theatre on January 20, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Momodu Mansaray/Getty Images)
By Aliese Muhonen
When asked what a person should do with the cash prize if they won the International Chopin Piano Competition in the documentary Pianoforte, Italian competitor Leonora Armellini laughed. “You might be using [it] to go to therapy.”
She was joking. Sort of.
The love/hate relationship between the world’s most talented young pianists and their most prestigious competition takes center stage in Pianoforte, which premiered January 20 in the World Cinema Documentary competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
The film is a captivating look behind the curtains of the 2021 contest, which has been held in Warsaw every five years since 1927, and admits only the finest professional pianists between 16-31 years old. In addition to its status as the most renowned classical piano competition in the world, it’s a potential career launchpad for the young virtuosos who enter. Past winners have left with record deals on top of the €40,000 grand prize.
Much like the dizzyingly difficult music performed, Pianoforte strikes a melodious balance between its subjects’ tensions and levity, hopeful idealism and heartbreak. Anchored by Polish director Jakub Piątek’s (Prime Time, 2021 Sundance Film Festival) unobtrusive style, the camera follows the harmony and dissonance in the lives of several piano players in Italy, China, Japan, Poland, and Russia during the months leading up to the competition and throughout its four pressure-packed rounds.
“We knew from the beginning that music will help us transport between the protagonists and between the countries,” Piątek says at a live Q&A following the premiere, explaining how he and the crew pulled off the seamless transitions between subjects. Since the competition is monographic — participants can only perform compositions by legendary 19th-century Polish pianist Frédéric Chopin — many of the film’s subjects play the same pieces, resulting in melodious and nearly undetectable cuts in the soundtrack.
The film’s magic isn’t only in the music (which is spellbinding in and of itself), but in the competitors’ personalities and relationships. They pound out Metallica songs for fun, play video games, care for pets, draw strength from partners and family, and even make friends with their opponents.
Some have intense attitudes, and some are more laidback (the latter embodied with charm by the two Italian competitors, who make friends with everyone they meet and enjoy a glass of wine between practice breaks at the competition).
But being a piano pro ain’t easy. We see the (mostly) teenage subjects massage callus-covered fingers and undergo physical therapy, slump in exhaustion over the piano keys after practicing for hours, and endure increasing pressure as the competition approaches. The intensity arises from not only their desire to win, but their uncertain futures if they don’t. “Not everyone wins,” Polish competitor Marcin Wieczorek sighs, “And they have no Plan B.”
Luckily, Piątek chose not to focus on winning or losing, since he found the humanity of the players more compelling than their chances of triumph. And he and the crew had no way of knowing how far the competitors would get.
“During and after the final announcement [of the competition], I had this really strong feeling that maybe it’s good that it’s not about winning,” Piątek says, “because it’s closer to our human perspective, because normally we are not winning.”
Some of the conflicts are universal, and would not be out of place at any high-stakes sporting event. Parents, instructors, and officials argue, and overbearing instructors demand technical perfection. But these moments are balanced with healthier, supportive relationships, like that of Chinese competitor Hao Rao and his instructor Vivian Li, whose interactions at first glance are amiable enough to be mistaken for those of mother and son. Both are present at the premiere, to the delight of the Q&A audience.
“When he was still a little student,” Li says, translating for Rao, “he just thought [piano] was something he wanted to do. He didn’t think more than that; it was not like a high dream or goal, but he just liked doing it.”
“And after he entered the competition,” she continues, “his decision is even stronger. He really understands how his music can influence and bring good energy to other people, so he really decided ‘This is what I’m going to do, and do it well, and I want to influence more people.’”
All of these competitors are among the best pianists in the world and have arrived at the same place, which begs the question: what is the best way to compete, and ultimately to live in pursuit of a dream? How the piano players answer that question is a tune worth hearing (and a film worth watching).