Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements (Irene Taylor Brodsky, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
Deafness follows director Irene Taylor Brodsky, though she, herself, can hear just fine. The child of deaf parents, she was not surprised when the condition resurfaced after skipping a generation, manifesting itself in her eldest child, Jonas. In her 2007 debut documentary Hear and Now, Brodsky told the tale of how her mother and father, at 65, received surgical implants that opened up the world of sound to them after a lifetime of silence. In her new film, Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements, she turns her lens on Jonas, at 11, also with implants, as he undertakes to learn and perform Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” a piece written by the great composer as his own hearing was beginning to deteriorate. It’s a deeply personal examination of Brodsky’s family history and the pros and cons of sound and its absence, offering the trajectory of Jonas’ lessons as the impetus for a thoughtful discussion on the limitations of hearing.
Despite his many early surgeries and attendant trauma, Jonas appears otherwise a typical tween boy. Scratch that: he’s kind and loving and likes classical music, so perhaps he’s better than most (though not immune from the occasional moodiness). Close to both parents and grandparents (and his two hearing siblings, as well), Jonas undertakes the study of the Beethoven piece as a way to both honor and overcome his deaf beginnings. But perfection (or something close to it) requires practice, and that’s hard work. Will he succeed? Watch on.
The film is structured, as the title suggests (and as per the actual “Moonlight Sonata”), in three movements, each advancing the story of Jonas’s training and relationship to his implants and to sound. We also spend significant time with Brodsky’s parents, seeing how they mentor Jonas even as they struggle with ambivalence towards their own implants. For 65 years they lived perfectly rich and successful lives without hearing, and though they can appreciate the value sound brings to others, to them it is an extra, and sometimes a burden. From their point of view to that of young Jonas, we gain insights into sometimes surprisingly different perspectives on deafness as both boon and curse, the whole buoyed by the music on which Jonas is working.
These various threads come together to form a solid, if not always consistently compelling, treatment of the subject. As interesting as parts of the whole may be, including the history of Brodsky’s parents and the early history of Jonas’s treatment, at times the film stalls in its forward narrative momentum, becoming more of an insular home movie for family and friends than a piece meant for wider audiences. But then it moves on, redeeming itself in the poignant tales of love, support and resilience. Like Beethoven’s sonata, its beautiful chords resonate long afterwards.