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Post-Soviet satire gives The Concert an earful

Film hits discordant notes when it tries to bridge comedy and drama

Generational nostalgia drives most of the 1980s-era nostalgia in current movies. Something darker and more complex, however, informs a new wave of films about the bad old days of Communism. Filmmakers can safely dramatize the brutal inhumanity of Communist regimes 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At a time when the Chinese are fast becoming the world's dominant capitalists and "socialism" serves as an all-purpose, vaguely understood political epithet, movies can help audiences remember the mistakes of history.

Bruce Beresford's upcoming Mao's Last Dancer presents the melancholy tale of a Red Chinese defector, but The Concert takes a lighthearted look at the repercussions of Brezhnev-era oppression in contemporary Russia. Romanian-born director Radu Mihaileanu finds satirical resonance in this French- and Russian-language production, but also hits discordant notes when The Concert tries to bridge comedy and drama.

Communists were masters at heaping disgrace on their citizens. In The Concert, former conductor Andreï Filipov (Aleksei Guskov) committed an act of defiance that caused him to be blackballed as a musician for nearly 30 years. At the film's outset, he works as a janitor at the legendary Bolshoi Theater. He once led the orchestra at the Bolshoi and now must suck up to the tyrannical director merely to listen to rehearsals. While cleaning an office, however, Andreï intercepts a fax from the Parisian Théâtre du Châtelet to see if the Bolshoi's orchestra can fill a gap in its season in two weeks.

Andreï gets the crazy scheme to enlist his former musical colleagues and impersonate the real Bolshoi for the French concert. He teams up with an old enemy, former manager/KGB informant Ivan Garilov (Valeriy Barinov) who negotiates for the fake Bolshoi. Ivan goes along with the plan because, as a Communist true believer, he hopes to rekindle The Party's spirit in Paris. Ivan makes diva-style demands of the French to live up to an antiquated idea of Russian artistry, but Andreï makes one challenging request: to book beautiful, celebrated Anne-Marie Jacquet (Inglourious Basterds' Mélanie Laurent) as soloist for their rendition of Tchaikovsky's "Concerto for Viola and Orchestra."

The Concert's high notes include an amusing montage of Andrei and a husky cellist-turned-ambulance driver (Dmitri Nazarov) "getting the band back together" as they track down their colleagues working odd jobs, from porno soundtrack to itinerant gypsy violinist. The film offers a breezy portrait of splintered post-Soviet society. Andrei's girlfriend, for instance, books "extras" to pad public events like political rallies or gangster weddings to make them seem more popular and legitimate than they actually are. One nouveau riche "oligarch," nicknamed "the king of natural gas" becomes both a vital sponsor and an unwelcome member of Andrei's orchestra.

No one expects documentary-level realism from comedies that hinge on complicated scams, but The Concert seems implausible at every turn, from arranging passports to avoiding the attention of the real Bolshoi. On arrival in France, most of the musicians run wild before they can even rehearse: How are you going to keep them in the Muscovite slum when they've seen Paree? Andrei and Ivan explain the company's wild lapses as the Russian artistic process to the Châtelet's increasingly suspicious manager.

When the locale switches to France, The Concert focuses more closely on Andrei's motivations and his tragic past, and the film awkwardly pivots from culture-clash farce to redemption drama. He reveals a secret fascination with Anne-Marie that goes beyond her prodigious musical talent, yet thankfully avoids the seemingly obvious revelation. Guskov plays Andrei like a Chekhovian hero caught in a French comedy as he explains his belief that the concert will provide the artistic transcendence he's been craving all his life. Rather than fall under his spell, Anne-Marie reconsiders performing with the obsessed conductor.

The Concert suggests that artistic preparation isn't just less important, but almost irrelevant compared to passion, a theme that feels surprisingly Hollywood given the film's French and Russian inspirations. Fortunately, Mihaileanu draws out the drama of the big performance, while Guskov and Laurent act with such focus that we can accept even the most surprising and unlikely outcomes. Audiences are bound to applaud at the idea that the fall of the Iron Curtain permits the velvet playhouse curtains in Russia and elsewhere to go up.