Movie review: Crossing Rachmaninoff

By Peter Calder

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Flavio Villani in Crossing Rachmaninoff (Supplied).
Flavio Villani in Crossing Rachmaninoff (Supplied).

The first time we get a good look at Flavio Villani's fingertips, they're very close to the business side of a lemon zester as he makes spaghetti.

It's a wince-inducing moment because we have already seen that those are special fingers.

The Italian-born Auckland resident, something of a latecomer to the piano, has an appointment near his home town in Calabria to play Rachmaninoff's enduringly popular but ferociously demanding Piano Concerto No 2 for what will be his first outing with an orchestra.

The charmingly shy Villani comes slowly but satisfyingly into focus in this small and winning local documentary as director Tansley follows him through the four-month preparation.

The pianist's reunion with his family is charged with bittersweet memories, in particular of his father's reluctance to accept his sexuality and choice of career, and there is something touchingly redemptive, and entirely unforced, about his pilgrimage.

Talking-head sequences are sparingly used in a handsome film that is mostly content just to watch: director of photography Simon Raby has a keen eye for telling detail (the felted hammer; the tuner's lever) and in quiet passages conveys with both elegance and force the loneliness of the long-distance pianist.

But, like the concerto, the film has some deliriously rhapsodic sequences - if you go on an empty stomach you may find an inspired family dinner scene unbearable.

The title conveys the project's essence: a pianist's first concerto performance is a rite of passage and Villani gives us a real sense of what a spiritual challenge it is to understand the music before you can play it.

Tansley never loses sight of that and the finale, which includes the entire third movement, feels like an ecstatic sigh. Lovely.

Verdict: A touching and engrossing portrait of the artist

Director: Rebecca Tansley

Running time: 79 mins

Rating: Exempt in English and Italian with English subtitles

- NZ Herald

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