True to its musical title, the documentary “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements” is composed as a three-part meditation on a single subject: hearing loss. But the tripartite form is more gimmick than essence.
If there are three things that truly form the foundation of this moving and thought-provoking film, they have less to do with structure than subject matter. At the heart of this intimate film by Irene Taylor Brodsky are stories about three generations, as it were, of deaf people, whose tales are woven throughout the movie: Beethoven himself, as well as the filmmaker’s son, Jonas, and her parents.
“Moonlight Sonata” is structured around the 11-year-old Jonas’ preparations for a recital where he plans to perform Beethoven’s titular work, a notoriously challenging 1801 piano piece. Born with hearing, Jonas began to grow deaf as a young child, and was fitted with cochlear implants, which enable him to hear, around the age of 4.
Brodsky’s father, the engineer Paul Taylor, was born deaf, and is known for inventing the first telecommunications device for the deaf. Like Jonas, the filmmaker’s mother, Sally Taylor, lost her hearing as a child. As for Beethoven, the composer was just beginning to lose his hearing when he wrote “Moonlight,” which transitions from a dreamlike mood to a stormy, pounding finale.
Brodsky’s 2007 film “Hear and Now” also dealt with deafness, and followed her parents’ decision to get cochlear implants, shortly before Jonas was born. Here, she explores the question of whether deafness—rather than a disability—is a kind of superpower, as she puts it. In her father’s case, the ability to remove his implants and return to soundlessness whenever, for instance, he is disturbed by a screaming infant, is a gift.
So too it is with Jonas, who finds—over the course of the piano lessons and practice sessions that mark the passage of time in the film—that he may, paradoxically, be able to play better when he cannot hear the notes.
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“Moonlight” is actually not about one thing, but many, and Brodsky threads her themes together nicely. The film also charts Paul Taylor’s incipient dementia, a development that “Moonlight” weaves into its other story lines by noting, poetically, that our mistakes—the metaphorical, and inevitable, false notes we play in life—can become, as Brodsky puts it, “our music.”
That’s a lovely thought, in a lovely film. “Moonlight” makes its points softly, but with resounding conviction.
Three stars. Unrated. Contains nothing objectionable. In English and some sign language with subtitles. 90 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.