Deafness is the theme that binds together the various threads of Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentary, which concentrates on her son Jonas and her deaf parents Paul and Sally, with Ludwig von Beethoven the third party. The first three appear in live action, the fourth in dreamy animation, but as the title indicates, it’s the composer’s fourteenth piano sonata, which he wrote just when his hearing had failed, that’s at the heart of the film.
That’s because Jonas—the only one of Brodsky’s three sons who inherited the “deaf” gene that had bypassed her generation, but who had gotten cochlear implants at age four that enable him to hear normally as long as they are active—not only expresses a desire to learn to play the piano, but an age eleven insists that he wants to tackle the first movement of the so-called Moonlight Sonata, a deceptively simple piece that his teacher thinks beyond his present capability.
The portion of the film that centers on Jonas is quite charming. He’s a typically hyperactive pre-teen, whose mood changes can sometimes be annoying and whose concentration isn’t at all consistent, but he’s an engaging, likable kid, and at times—as in relationship with his granddad—he exhibits considerable sensitivity. And it’s certainly nice to see his dedication to mastering the Beethoven piece, and the support he gets from others in his efforts.
Even more affecting is the portrait the film draws as it follows Paul and Sally, both deaf from birth, as they are faced with the possibility of treatment that might allow them to hear after decades of silence but also the reality of growing older. A subplot depicts Paul showing signs of incipient dementia, and a particularly moving moment comes when Brodsky informs him that she’s no longer comfortable allowing him to drive her children, which sets up a rare confrontation with Sally as he is unable to comprehend why and she insists that he simply accept their daughter’s decision.
The connection of these stories with the life of Beethoven is less explored than simply stated. We hear the familiar tales of the composer’s deafness—in particular the one about how he could not hear that the orchestra he was conducting in the first performance of his Ninth Symphony had reached the end of the piece, and had to be physically turned around to face the applauding audience—but they, and the animation in which they’re presenting, are more like fronting on the cake rather than part of the meal.
Nor is Brodsky’s narration all it might be. At times crushingly obvious and at others striving for a sense of poetry that mostly eludes her, you might find that it’s more onerous than revealing.
Still, despite its structural weaknesses and a tendency to repetitiveness, Brodsky’s documentary makes for a touching, and ultimately uplifting, portrait of a family coping with the hand they’ve been dealt.