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The Spanish director Pere Portabella’s [2007] film brings Bach’s music to life with a mysterious, magnificent blend of drama, documentary, and quasi-surrealist whimsy. Beginning with a scene of a player piano rattling off the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) while rolling through a bright, bare loft, Portabella tickles the senses with a series of skits: a truck driver who plays Bach on the harmonica; Bach himself (the harpsichordist/organist Christian Brembeck) teaching his son Christoph Friedrich music via The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 846-69); a Bach impersonator hosting tourists in Leipzig; an orchestra of cellists playing a suite while speeding along in a sleek new subway car; a boat trip through Dresden, where the Goldberg Variations were commissioned, as a guide recounts the 1945 firebombing; a bookseller who speaks to a customer of the horrific abuses of great music in Auschwitz; and Felix Mendelssohn (Daniel Ligorio) discovering the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) on a piece of sheet music in which his butcher has wrapped meat. From puckish humor and borderline kitsch, a great and serious notion emerges: modern Europe was built on the foundation of classical music, which, as a result, endures tenaciously there.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

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