film: Noteworthy Drama 

After five bombs in a row, fugitive director Roman Polanski hits all the right notes with "The Pianist."

There could be no doubt in the mind of any viewer about this stirring and melodious message from Polanski: A man may have been broken by a world of evil and misery, but not his soul or his art.

Though I loathe to describe it as such — because "triumph of the spirit" has been invoked so often it's become something of a shallow cliché — "The Pianist" truly embodies the thematic and emotional elements of that overworked phrase.

Wladyslaw Szpilman's story of survival is exactly why the words were minted. A young concert pianist and composer in Poland before World War II, Szpilman's life and art changed forever Sept. 23, 1939. On that day, Szpilman was playing a Chopin nocturne on Polish radio when the Luftwaffe bombed the Warsaw station. Six years later, the lone survivor of his large Jewish family, Szpilman chose to play the very same selection when the Warsaw station began transmitting once more.

Polanski, himself a child in Warsaw at the time of the bombings, seems fated to be the one to tell this story. And he does so beautifully. Shot in patina-burnished browns and chilled blues by cinematographer Pawel Edelman, "The Pianist" registers deeply on both a visual and visceral level. Even the screenplay by Ronald Harwood is spare, as though he used a scalpel instead of any traditional writing implement to pen the script.

As with his most famous early works, Polanski reveals that he has not forgotten the dramatic value of silence. Horrific images, whether they take shape as the form of a dead child lying on a wet street or a Nazi savagely beating an old man, deliver a greater impact when presented in a hushed whisper rather than a shout.

Adrien Brody, as Szpilman, captures with facile ease the harrowing transformation his character undergoes during the course of the film. When we first see him, he's confident, very much the arrogant young artist, inured to being praised and forgiven because of his talent. By the end, it is almost impossible to quash the desire to look away from the emaciated wraith he's become. We can barely hold his gaze, undone by the raw desperation in his eyes.

Like a macabre travelogue, "The Pianist" escorts us, step by step, along the artist's journey. At every turn, the ironic nature of fate and coincidence seems to be playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Szpilman: Having moved with his family to the Warsaw Ghetto (where the Nazis rounded up the city's 360,000 Jews), he narrowly misses boarding a train whose undisclosed destination is an extermination camp.

Polanski — by design I believe in retrospect — doesn't give us much of a sense of Szpilman pre-war, or even much of a clue about what music means to him. What Polanski does give us, however, is an eloquent understanding that despite their stirring beauty, Chopin's nocturnes cannot compare with survival.

Early in the film, we see Szpilman playing with pleasure, but also with an ever-so-slight hint of a businesslike detachment. But later, alone in a clandestine apartment, his only company a piano, Brody shows us the battle waging inside the artist. Warned that he must be quiet, he sits at the piano and plays a concert piece — his fingers barely an inch above the keys, the composition audible only inside his head. When his ghostly piece is done, his pinched and worried face relaxes, as if to show us that within that poignant, silent piece a great hunger has been fed. Truly food for the soul.

Not merely a well-told, devastating tale of survival, "The Pianist" also serves as a joyous but melancholy tribute to the enduring powers of art.

Although it brings to mind Spielberg's "Schindler's List," even down to a jarring sentimental turn in its final 30 minutes, those similarities don't make Polanski's "The Pianist" any less moving. **** S


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