Culture, Religion

Film review: "Harmonia" by Ori Sivan

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There is a scene late in Harmonia in which the overbearing conductor of the Jerusalem Philharmonic Orchestra exhorts his young son to play his violin in a manner somewhere between restraint and outburst, between order and chaos. The conductor is Abraham, his son is Isaac, and the tension he describes permeates the entire film. It is Isaac who embodies safety and restraint, and his half-brother Ben, AKA Ismail, who seems dangerous and out of control.
If you’ve already guessed, based on the character names, that the film is Biblical allegory, you’d be right. Abraham is married to Sarah, who plays first-chair harp in orchestra he conducts and seems unable to have children. They accept third chair horn player Hagar’s offer to conceive a child for them with Abraham. They name the baby Ben, but eventually he will be called Ismail.
[pullquote align=left] Writer-director Ori Sivan has given us a retelling of Abraham and Sarah’s saga that is far from simplistic.
[/pullquote]At this point, if you’re following along in Genesis, you know Isaac will be born about a decade later, when Sarah is past typical child-bearing age. And the film makes sure you are following along in Genesis because from the opening scenes the action is intercut with quotes from the relevant chapters. But if you also guessed, based on this description, that this film is a little too pat, that’s where you’d be wrong. I admit I had this fear early on in the film. A character was introduced, and then a verse from Genesis would tell me about the character.
But it does not take long to see that writer-director Ori Sivan has given us a retelling of Abraham and Sarah’s saga that is far from simplistic. His version is surreal, constantly unsettling, and marries some of the darker elements of the story with a gothic horror sensibility. There is a general sense of unease punctuated by hard edges throughout – abrupt edits, creepy set decor, lurid colors, and extreme close-ups of bone-chilling stares. Because of this, when deeply loving feelings finally burst onscreen after all of that icy buildup, the warmth is so palpable that you feel as though the film itself may melt.
In transferring the story to modern-day Israel, Sivan wisely infuses the melodrama with larger societal tensions plaguing Israel today. Ben-cum-Ismail is an outsider in Sarah and Abraham’s household, and his character’s alienation embodies that of Palestinian communities in Jerusalem. His biological mother, Hagar, is from East Jerusalem, and she is shown early on speaking Arabic with her father. The half-Arab child she gives birth to is then raised in an affluent Jewish Israeli household, and while this is not the ostensible reason for his discomfort, the symbolism of it cannot be missed. At the same time, it never feels heavy-handed.
[pullquote align=right] In music, as in life, you want to hit the right note somewhere between sensible restraint and passionate chaos.
[/pullquote]Perhaps the greatest strength of this film is its use of music to communicate the feelings and personalities of the different characters. Each plays a different instrument, with Abraham’s instrument being the entire orchestra itself (including Sarah and Hagar). Music is crucial to every aspect of the story, and Sivan handles it expertly. A glance at his résumé explains why: In 2001, he directed a documentary about Klari Sarvash, the very first harpist in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and in 2010, he filmed an intimate documentary portrayal of that same orchestra’s great maestro, conductor Zubin Mehta. His detailed knowledge of music and the orchestral world enriches the narrative, and nowhere is this more prominent than in his use of Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherazade to carry the theme of Arab identity subtly throughout the entire film. This is especially fitting given that Scheherazade is also a rather loose adaptation of its source material, One Thousand and One Nights. Rimsky-Korsakov called it “a kaleidoscope of fairy tale images,” from The Nights, and Harmonia bears a very similar relationship to the Book of Genesis.
The use of music goes beyond the specific pieces the characters play. It is the way they play them that gives the musical interactions here real suspense. Those with a deeper knowledge of music than I have will probably have a deeper experience of the film, but even with my extremely limited knowledge of classical music, I found myself holding my breath in anticipation of how a character would play a line of music. In music, as in life, you want to hit the right note somewhere between sensible restraint and passionate chaos.

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