Is ambition a good thing or a setting for disaster? Certainly it can challenge people to great things, but it also may lead to our downfalls. In the Israeli film God of the Piano, directed by Itay Tal, we see the darker side of ambition as it plays out in the life of a woman and her child.
Anat (Naama Preis) is a concert pianist (part of a very musically inclined family). The film opens with her at the piano in a concert hall. Her water breaks. When she delivers the child, it is discovered he is born deaf. How will such a child ever become the great musician Anat is planning on him becoming? After switching bracelets with another baby, she takes home a hearing child. In no time at all he son Idan (Andi Levi) is becoming an excellent pianist, and moving into composing. At 12 years old, he is seeking to be accepted into a prestigious music program.
Anat has become the musical version of a pushy stage mother. She has abandoned her own career to make sure that Idan has every advantage. And she will stop at nothing to advance his possibilities. Idan seems to go along with this, but he also wants some of the other things in life that 12 year olds enjoy. What will happen to Anat’s dreams if Idan just isn’t quite good enough? Does that bring new guilt to the act in the hospital when she swapped babies?
One of the comments made during the film is that there are composers and musicians, and then there are technicians. There are those who can achieve greatness. Others may have great skill, but lack the little bit that will make them artists. When Anat’s father tells her this, he adds, “You know who he inherited it from.”
That last line hints at issues of nature versus nurture. Is musical ability something in the genes or is it learned? Both perspectives could be seen as an inheritance. For Anat, those words certainly trigger guilt. Her actual child would never have had the abilities Idan had. (We never see just what abilities he might have, although in the end, Anat is becoming curious.) And the abilities she has nurtured in Idan may not be enough either. Her father’s comment cuts at her from both directions.
Anat’s life has been centered in ambition. Her talent was adequate, but not exceptional. Probably even before the birth of her son, she had plans for what his life in music would be like. That the gods of fate had stepped in to dash those dreams at the very beginning, did not stop her. But even then, she is still in danger of having the goals of her life blocked. Her ambitions have become the cause of her unhappiness. It seems very like a Greek tragedy.
What makes this even more tragic is that it is so centered in music—something that brings joy to most of us. Often we feed our souls with music. We use it as an act of celebration. Yet for Anat, and others in this story, music is only a tool to be mastered and used for self. So music, and the ambition it drives in these characters, is not something of joy, but of pain. Perhaps it would be better to be deaf.
God of the Piano is available on Virtual Cinema through local arthouses.
Photos courtesy of Film Movement.