Itzhak is a taut documentary that takes an intimate look into the soul of a violin virtuoso. I’m not completely familiar with Itzhak Perlman, nor am I particularly a fan of classical music, but like Itzhak, I feel lucky to be a person that is often moved by art in it’s various incarnations. In Alison Chernick’s film, it’s impossible not to be touched by Itzhak’s manipulation of strings, as well as the man himself.
The documentary is conducted in a way that I wish more films were, not as a straightforward retelling of an individual’s journey to stardom but a series of snapshots that are so rich in what they convey, they manage to tell the story without much talking of heads. We get a sense of Itzhak’s early life, his battle with a disability brought on by polio, and how for some reason in the eyes of some, the disuse of his legs translated to his not being able to perform violin with his perfectly healthy arms. Through it all, Itzhak had the love and support of his parents as well as an influential teacher, and a doting wife who is without a doubt his biggest fan. Watching the two of them together is what brings the joy in this film, aside from of course, the music.
The film opens with Itzhak performing a violin rendition of the national anthem at a baseball game. It’s an extraordinary representation of the versatility of the violin, and how Itzhak is able to bring a crowd to it’s feet with his playing. Itzhak mentions in the film that people are drawn to certain instruments because the sound they make hits them in a certain way it doesn’t other people. That maybe true, but it’s impossible to deny the strong cultural connection Itzhak has to his instrument, and what it means for him to play it as a Jewish man. There’s a particularly moving scene in the film where Itzhak visits a violin shop in Israel and plays used violins once owned by Jews in Europe during WWII. Some played simply for survival both in the camps and out. The violin was after all “small enough to grab and run away with.”
It’s hard to dislike a man who has maintained his joy and love for life despite the challenges he has faced. Again, it’s hard not to make cultural connections, and Chernick isn’t subtle about making them either. Playing violin for Itzhak is as much about keeping history alive as it is indulging in a gift he happens to possess. And what makes his appeal even more frustrating is that he doesn’t come off as an untouchable genius, but a man you would want to joke around and play Brahms with around a table of Chinese food.
Itzhak opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.