Film Review: Divertimento

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Film Review: Divertimento
Women orchestra conductors are having their moment in the cinema. Tar, the sleekly sophisticated, brilliantly acted (by Cate Blanchett) film about an abusive mentor-mentee relationship, has garnered raves and pans and lots of controversy. A new French film, Divertimento, recounts the apprenticeship of a young woman in this rarefied milieu (based on a true story). Zahia Ziouani (Oulaya Amamra) is still a high-school student, not having yet taken her Baccalauréat exam. Along with her sister Fettouma (Lina El Arabi) and some other students, she also attends a conservatory. Though she plays an instrument, the viola (her sister plays cello) Zahia has her heart set on conducting, a desire which came about when she saw a televised concert with a conductor leading the orchestra in Ravel’s “Bolero”. Divertimento. Credit: Le Pacte What gives Divertimento added interest is that Zahia is of North African descent, and lives in the underprivileged northern suburb of Saint-Denis (known by its administrative code “93”). Classical music isn’t much of a thing with typical teenagers from the area. But Zahia and Fettouma’s dad (played by Zinedine Soualem) is a classical music fanatic, whose happiest moment after arriving in France was when he coughed up a considerable sum to see a live concert at the Salle Pleyel, and who continues to listen rapturously to his precious vinyl records. The mother (Nadia Kaci) plays a more traditional role in this loving immigrant family, but in a nice moment we see Zahia entranced, watching her rhythmic gestures while doing housework. It’s in capturing little moments like these that the director, Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, reveals herself as both a fresh and moving talent. Cast of Divertimento. Credit: Le Pacte Zahia and Fettouma are actually twin sisters, but fraternal twins. By coincidence, the day I saw the film I spoke to a woman about her relationship with her fraternal sister: very close, but with pronounced differences (even physical: one blonde, the other brunette). So in the movie, there is powerful synergy between the soulful, strong “older” Zahia and the strikingly sensual Fettouma, strong in her own way. The fraternal relationship is key to both sisters’ musical development. The director’s other major talent is bringing out powerful performances from her leads (and even secondary characters). It’s when she is least obtrusive in setting up their scenes that the flow and clash of characters work best. Much of the film’s first half deals with not only the collaboration among music students but also the competition between them. In the conservatory there are more students from Paris proper, more of them white, male, and upper-class. Zahia in particular must face the disdain of the competition. This seems a little like, sometimes too much like, an American movie or TV dramedy about up-and-coming good guys (or girls) vs. the snotty baddies — we find ourselves intuitively casting the American remake.
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Lead photo credit : Divertimento poster. Credit: Le Pacte

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Dimitri Keramitas was born and raised in Connecticut, USA, and was educated at the University of Hartford, Sorbonne, and the University of London, and holds degrees in literature and law. He has lived in Paris for years, and directs a training company and translation agency. In addition, he has worked as a film critic for both print and on-line publications, including Bonjour Paris and France Today. He is a contributing editor to Movies in American History. In addition he is an award-winning writer of fiction, whose stories have been published in many literary journals. He is the director of the creative writing program at WICE, a Paris-based organization. He is also a director at the Paris Alumni Network, an organization linking together several hundred professionals, and is the editor of its newletter. The father of two children, Dimitri not only enjoys Paris living but returning to the US regularly and traveling in Europe and elsewhere.