An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano

An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano ★★★

Nikita Mikhalkov: Once a remarkable young actor, then an internationally renowned director, and through much of it, a deeply controversial nationalist. Though for the record, Mikhalkov's more vocal political positions (such as his infamously close relationship with Vladimir Putin) are not the sole criticism of his filmmaking philosophies - while his directorial work has been celebrated by everything from the Academy Awards to Venice to Cannes, its praise isn't at all universal and varies from film to film. For someone who shared the same teacher as Andrei Tarkovsky (that being veteran director Mikhail Romm), collaborated with the likes of Miklos Jancso (albeit briefly), and seemingly represented a rebellious youthful spirit in his younger years, Mikhalkov is a little less... daring, shall we say, than some of his peers. I suppose that's not a complete slight, as his most beloved work seems more in-line with gentle sincerity than the sort of commentary and experimentation you'd expect from Tarkovsky, or even similarly contentious artists like Kusturica.

Unfortunately, An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano is an instance that might have benefited more from the maximalist approach of Kusturica, the minimalist approach of Jancso, or the experimental approach of Tarkovsky. I generally take no issue with stage adaptations leaning on their more fixed "stagey" qualities, though the "happy medium" that Mikhalkov finds is more uncertain than anything.

Though I must still give it some credit for working within such small-scale constraints while still feeling fairly extravagant and deliberate. Cinematographer Pavel Lebeshev knows his way around a camera, as evidenced by his work on Larisa Shepitko's The Ascent released the same year. While this film can sometimes feel on cruise control regarding composition for coherence rather than purpose, he does quite comfortably build up to larger sequences.

I still can't shake its resemblance to more interesting films that speak visually to their meaning rather than simply adapting such meaning. Too conservative to be Duras, too claustrophobic to be Cynthia Scott, too conventional to be Angelopoulos, too cowardly to be Tarkovsky. A script such as this perhaps seeks greater ambition.

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