A review of the breathtaking feature-length documentary Los Hermanos/The Brothers by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider
No matter how many times stories about separation are told it is hard not to be overwhelmed by emotion. However, the separation of brothers Ilmar Gavilán and Aldo López-Gavilán has both an element of heartbreak as well as triumph. It is a compelling story that just had to be told. It has all the elements of an epic narrative that is painted on a sweeping canvas stretching continents, with drama baked in by the six wrongful decades of the stubborn and reprehensible embargo of Cuba [mostly, if not completely, due to the stubbornness of successive neo-colonial regimes in the United States].
But it is also a human interest story – at times bitter sweet and heart achingly beautiful. It also ultimately centres on the triumphal artistic reunification of two brothers – each an inimitable celebrated in his own right; their triumph over separation and by the dogged pursuit of artistic excellence before being reunified in an intimate sharing of each other’s art. It also shines bright lights on the genius of each other in performances on stage and – ultimately – on record as well. On the face of it the film’s canvas may seem to be a drama perpetrated by geopolitics, which may be true, but the directors – Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider – have dug much deeper into their story that they are narrating for us to experience. They share – through the storied lives of the principal characters, the brothers Ilmar Gavilán and Aldo López-Gavilán – an epic story of brotherly love, between two artists; the challenges that they experience through filial bonds, family tragedy against a brutal backdrop of the neo-colonialism of a hegemonistic superpower against the small island nation of Cuba. At its heart, this is a story of the separation and coming-together of two remarkable human beings.
Ilmar, the elder of the two brothers, was a prodigious classical violinist. His parents – both important musicians in Cuba – recognised that at 14 years of age, he had outgrown everything that his teachers in Cuba could do to further his abilities. They made the only decision they could. This meant that the boy could only advance to the next level if he found advanced mentorship and in his pursuit of a grand musical education. They therefore took the necessary step of looking outside Cuba, leading them to accessing what the Soviet Union had to offer; not uncommon for artists and scientists of the day to pursue at the time.
And so Ilmar travelled to Moscow accompanied by his mother, the family was now split, leaving his younger brother Aldo, himself just seven years old and already a prodigious pianist in his own right, to pursue his art and in a country that had – and continues to – foster great Cuban musical star-pianists. Cuba, we know has always focused its conservatoire-centered education of musicians on the European classical system and it has paid off with a steady – and continuing – stream of prodigious pianists honed by matchless classical technique in the realm of the piano. In time, when Aldo also outgrew what his teachers in Cuba had to offer he too advanced to the next level – at Trinity College of Music in London.
In the course of time Ilmar found himself living and working as part of the illustrious Harlem String Quartet in New York, while Aldo grew to become one of Cuba’s most sought after interpreters of classical music, a composer of great renown and a pianist whose art rose to a distinguished realm. Meanwhile the illegal and stifling blockade of Cuba, led by the US and other countries allied to it, continued to cripple the small island nation’s economy. It also limited the means of these prodigious brothers to meet for any length of time and this is what drives the film’s narrative – especially the sub-plot which deals with the travails of the family over the years as it becomes deeply invested in the artistic development of the brothers. The directors tell their story candidly, and with great sensitivity particularly when it deals with the loss of their mother, which leaves their father Guido López-Gavilán relatively alone – both with bringing up Aldo López-Gavilán and managing a burgeoning career of his own as a composer in Cuba.
Los Hermanos/The Brothers [as the film is entitled] masterfully captures the brothers’ pursuit of their “Holy Grail” which is to make music that not only connects Ilmar and Aldo artistically, but – as we come to experience – also with a deep sense of spiritually as well. It is here that the narrative has its greatest power. The directors somehow align their cinematic story with the rhythm of the oceanic currents that rise and fall like great tidal waves lapping at the coasts of Cuba and the US – just 90 miles apart. The climatic moments of the finale take place both in the public arena of stage performance as well as in the intimacy of an absolutely brilliant studio recording that is the apogee of both the film and the exquisite soundtrack that accompanies this masterful film.
Title – Los Hermanos/The Brothers
Directors – Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider
Duration – 1:23:35
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