In a time when anyone can pick up a camera and create a documentary it becomes increasingly important to think about why the film in front of you has been made. In Stéphanie Argerich’s case one has to ask whether her portrait of her mother, the highly respected pianist Martha Argerich, was created simply because she had a subject to hand, or whether there is some deeper purpose which drives and informs every frame of the film. Thankfully what’s quickly apparent is that under the soft exterior does indeed lie a blazing exploration of love, tension and tested parental bonds.
Argerich’s story is primarily about how the relationship between Martha Argerich and her daughters has developed and adapted over the years of her touring and being adored by fans all over the world. What’s fascinating here is that the story so intimately concerns the daughter behind the camera, and yet we virtually never see or hear from her. Instead she weaves a loving but evenhanded portrait of her family by intelligently presenting clips from its different members; a technique which allows us to always have a strong sense of how she feels and interprets each scene, and yet which doesn’t seek to influence our take on each viewpoint or moment. It’s a very subtle thing which she does and it marks her out as being a director of some skill, despite the film’s slightly rough and ready presentation at other times.
Without giving details away I have to congratulate the film on its patient approach. The film is full of gradual revelations where the themes of blood, family and the bonds which bind them become increasingly layered and emotionally charged. Just when you think you understand the full picture something new is brought to light, or a difficult subject which was tentatively raised earlier suddenly rears its head and is tackled full on. The Argerich family is an interesting one of sacrifices made in the name of art, of celebration, joy and love, as well as darker forces which repeatedly pull members away from one another as they try to understand each other and their collective history.
The film could have been tightened up in order to really bring it into shape, but what would be a mistake would be to lose the films aimless, gentle feel. That presentation works so well with the torrent of emotion that runs underneath, allowing the film to feel relaxed and softly focused whilst in actual fact it heavily scrutinises the effect fame and talent has upon family life. We find ourselves seeing everybody’s side in this story simultaneously and can never quite sit comfortably on whether it was for the best that Martha pursued her career whilst having a family, or whether something should have been sacrificed. Every option is uncomfortable and as the film runs its course we gradually learn to sit, without trying to come down on one side or another and just absorb these people’s stories and how they view and interpret the world. It’s often a charming and slightly magical experience.
What is the film’s greatest strength? The strength of Argerich’s direction and ability to tell a compelling story.
Its greatest weakness? It’s a little rough around the edges at times and could have benefited from an ever so slightly tighter cut.
Would I see it again? Certainly, the Argerich family are fascinating and affecting to watch.
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