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Film Reviews

NZIFF Film Review: Lara (2019)

Clare Martin

Lara is the second feature film for German director Jan-Ole Gerster and appears in the New Zealand International Film Festival which opens this Friday 24 July.

Centred on a mother-son relationship and a classical pianist’s life, this is ripe opportunity for cinema to be imbued with the riches of classical music. And in the opening scene, this delivers much promise - the sombre loneliness of Lara waking alone to her sixtieth birthday and the aching notes of Chopin’s Waltz No. 3 in A minor. We know that if this Romantic composer is employed, this film is going to dig deep into our hearts.

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And this opening scene reveals leading actress Corinna Harfouch as a formidable on-screen personality. We wake up with her to a huge emptiness, an almost-suicide and an vast absence. We want to know why. It is mainly this tension, the apparent estrangement Lara has from… what or who? And as her day unravels, the shreds draw together to fill the frame.

It is bold for director Gerster to hang a film on a protagonist who is so unlikable. As the day progresses, Lara is confronted with estrangement more starkly. Her embitterment draws tighter until we think she will break. Other characters move into range of her lacerating coldness, but it is Lara at the centre of this story. Actress Harfouch holds this load with iron steadiness.

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Blaž Kutin's screenplay unfolds calmly, almost standing back a little, letting the story tell itself. The choice of the often muted colour palette in the scenes adds to the sense of deadness at the heart of Lara, even the flower bouquet is not allowed to look colourful, swathed in layers of plastic.

However the full musical promise of the opening doesn’t deliver through the story. After all there is a vast world of (German Romantic) music to draw on. Musical Director Samy Moussa does choose great occasional musical moments, such as the son's explosive pianist performance of Chopin’s Revolutions Étude (played wonderfully by real pianist Alice Sara Ott). But the opportunity to colour the tension with the gifts of Romantic composition wasn’t truly employed.

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Composer Arash Safaian made effective use of wind instrumentation to turn the screw on Lara's grip. However, Safaian's composition at the centre of the film performed by the virtuoso son I felt was a touch fraudulent, to my ears it was expanded and simplified Chopin.

The film certainly does deliver a story journey, the dénouement does arrive at the answer. Here is another good music choice from Moussa with Schumann’s Toccata Opus 7. However, the full circle was shattered by the awful choice of music for the closing credits. Having taken us on this classical music journey, why finish with a (sorry, but true) trite French pop song??

This is a dramatically compelling film, drawn confidently by director Jan-Ole Gerster. And with strong central acting from Corinna Harfouch and some brilliant classical music moments, this film does deliver an authentic and steely core.

NZIFF 2020 - Watch Lara HERE

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Written By: Clare Martin Clare has performed as an opera, recital and oratorio artist in UK most notably the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London. In NZ she has performed with NZ Opera and with the NZ Symphony Orchestra but more recently she has moved into a wider range of contemporary genres including jazz and even Leonard Cohen. Since 2008 Clare has been teaching from her own music studio working with professional and beginner singers. In 2017 she was a mentor on TVNZ’s The Naked Choir working with a cappella choirs and she currently coaches barbershop and a woman’s ensemble.