Can Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, given their record of mutual strife, get along?
Dror Zahavi, an Israeli filmmaker living in Germany, puts this question to the test in his latest movie, Crescendo, which opens on May 1 in a virtual cinematic release throughout the United States.
Zahavi’s impassioned drama is loosely inspired by the formation of Daniel Barenboim’s unique West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which is made up of young Israeli and Arab musicians and is now based in Seville, Spain.
Barenboim, an Israeli conductor born in Argentina, formed the ensemble in 1999 in tandem with the Palestinian American academic Edward Said. Its purpose is to create understanding between Israelis and Palestinians and to promote peace in the Middle East, a worthy goal which still remains elusive.
In Crescendo, which unfolds in German, Arabic, Hebrew and English, a renowned Austrian conductor, Eduard Sporck (Peter Simonischek), is persuaded to leave retirement to create such an orchestra.
Having selected the Israeli and Palestinian musicians in auditions, his overarching task is to meld them into a harmonious unit, if that is possible. Zahavi’s 106-minute feature film, shot on location in the Middle East and Europe, traces that difficult process in all its permutations.
As Crescendo opens, Zahavi focuses on two Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank who aspire to join the orchestra. Layla (Sabrina Amali), a violinist, hails from a nationalist family. Omar (Mehdi Meskar), a clarinetist, is descended from a clan of musicians who perform at Arab weddings.
Layla is grilled by a surly Israeli border guard as she crosses a checkpoint. Omar’s father, hoping to accompany him to Israel for his audition, is turned back by a similarly unsympathetic Israeli solider. “Fucking Jews,” mutters Layla as she and Omar, an old acquaintance, head toward Tel Aviv.
Sporck, the wizened conductor, admires the musicians trying to impress him. “Who auditions for me has a lot of courage,” he says. “Let’s make music.”
Having evaluated the candidates, he’s generally disappointed by the caliber of the Palestinians aspirants, and is tempted to choose mainly Israelis. Karla (Bibiana Beglau), the persuasive non-governmental official who got the project rolling, insists that its membership must be equally composed of Israelis and Palestinians.
This is not the only problem that arises. Layla’s mother opposes her participation in the orchestra. Ron (Daniel Donskoy), a talented Israeli violinist, throws a temper tantrum after Sporck selects Layla as concertmaster. To Layla’s annoyance, Ron continues to challenge her leadership. And in another tense moment, the Palestinians shout anti-Zionist slogans.
After the musicians decamp to the scenic Austrian Alps for bonding sessions, a fresh round of tensions erupt, prompting Sporck to plaintively ask, “Can you make it through the next rehearsal without killing each other?”
Only two musicians are able to rise above the politics and coexist: Omar and Shira (Eyan Pinkovitch), both of whom are soft-spoken and unusually sensitive.
As the Israelis and Palestinians attempt to surmount their differences, Layla tells a story about her grandmother, who was driven out of Lod during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, while an unnamed Israeli man offers an account of his family’s experiences during the Holocaust.
Sensing a semblance of progress, Sporck tries to be a mediator, imploring his charges to treat each other with respect. But the road ahead is strewn with obstacles. “We’re enemies as long as someone occupies our land,” says a Palestinian. “There will never be peace between Jews and Arabs,” counters an Israeli.
Sporck, whose own family history reeks of genocide, is undeterred by their pessimism. Claiming that Germans and Jews have reconciled since the Nazi interregnum, he voices certainty that Israelis and Palestinians also can live together in peace. In closing, he issues a thinly-veiled ultimatum: cooperate and produce beautiful music, or go your own separate ways.
Crescendo deals with these challenges and dilemmas quite realistically and effectively, though one of the final scenes sinks below this level and is somewhat confusing. The cast is exemplary, with Simonischek, Amali, Donskoy, Meskar and Pinkovitch delivering affecting performances.
In short, Crescendo treats its theme with the consideration and respect it deserves.