Movie Review: The Grand Bolero

The Grand Bolero is a music drama romance turned thriller about a middle-aged organ restorer who becomes a mentor to a young woman after she arrives at a rural Italian church with nothing but a desire to learn. The apprentice-mentor drama is far from a novelty but it’s quite astounding just how fresh and rare it seems in a female-led film. This is Gabriele Fabbro’s film, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ydalie Turk, a director whose body of work has been known to venture into the realm of seduction and violence where pleasure and pain collide with operatic consequences.

His latest feature film gathers many of these story threads together in composing a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears as an unlikely friendship and unexpected attraction bends and then snaps. Set at an old church during the Covid-19 outbreak, the location’s exquisite detail riddles every frame summoning up history, religion and humanity to create a rich context for human drama against the backdrop of a forest that borders on fairy tale. The swirling cinematography and free-flowing edit makes you forget that The Grand Bolero is effectively a single location film, nimble enough to almost break completely free of limitations imposed by lockdown.

Dancing in the eyes, the organ music fills one’s ears with a vivid soundtrack to match the visual decadence. From the audio environment’s rich immersive sound of being in a forest by a brook to the wall-to-wall music of being in the presence of a grand organ, The Grand Bolero serves as a prime example of just how integral a soundtrack is when it comes to engaging senses in setting the scene. Listening to the impressive organ music, a central aspect to the mentorship and restorative elements of The Grand Bolero, the story and music build and build to a dizzying crescendo.

While aurally and visually-enticing, the co-lead performances are just as powerful in their opposites-attract positioning. There’s little spoon-feeding when it comes to character, introducing the gruff Roxanne and wide-eyed Lucia as rough outlines without much back story. Much like an organ, The Grand Bolero takes a while to warm up as we’re introduced to the characters, their foisted-upon dynamic and unlikely kinship. At first taken in like a stray cat, the “mute” gets the lowly role of assistant to a resistant tyrant whose hard heart begins to soften with time and resonance.

grand bolero movie

“One more time… with feeling!”

Closing in on its characters to create a sense of intimacy, the tightknit cast comprise of Lidia Vitale, Ludovica Mancini, Filippo Prandi and Marcello Mariani. It’s Vitale’s powerhouse performance that captures the driving, pent up energy of The Grand Bolero. A commanding voice, her presence fills just as much space as the organ music, following through with a bold, spirited and thoughtful turn. A personification of the beleaguered musical instrument she restores, this metaphor comes to represent her dusty heart and repressed libido as passions stir. As the hapless “stray”, Macini conveys a great deal with her big beautiful eyes leaning into her enigmatic outsider part as a diligent student with Mariani there in a knowing role – essentially the story’s referee and conscience.

It’s supremely difficult to write for and act in a non-speaking role, forcing screenwriters and actors to come up with creative ways to translate the character’s intention and emotion. As such, The Grand Bolero begins with a lightness of touch, offering glimpses of its characters but coming across as quite thin with one main speaking role. Thankfully, the story’s evolution becomes more and more evident as new layers and genre elements seek to redress the characters and accumulate more dramatic tension. As each new story filter presents a different shade to the tale, The Grand Bolero becomes more intricate, intimate and precarious.

Starting as if set to fulfil a standard duo dynamic, The Grand Bolero keeps audiences guessing as a series of surprises and twists play out. There are a few leaps of faith but the gorgeous cinematic mix of sound, visuals, story and performance overwhelm the senses to the point that you’re bewitched and at the mercy of the filmmakers. Through a series of bold brushstrokes, The Grand Bolero’s operatic tendencies eventually spiral upwards as the stirring music, morality drama and inflamed passions reach fever pitch.

While the pandemic setting offers a sliver of symbolism with the concept of wearing a mask, as well as a hostile outside world with haunting “chin up” slogans, it does unfortunately date and restrain The Grand Bolero. It would have been curious to see how the universal story fared in a medieval setting akin to In the Name of the Rose but its bellow still echoes in the here and now thanks to powerful themes and vivid filmmaking.

Much like Hereditary, The Grand Bolero showcases a visionary filmmaker in full flight as moments of brilliance bubble up with more self-assuredness. Yet, as impassioned as Fabbro is… the final flourish does kick into overdrive. The Grand Bolero’s a spectacular and immersive cinematic experience, propelled by resplendent organ music and strong co-lead performances that revel in timeless themes. However, as beautiful, pompous, glorious and poetic as it is at times… the story is unfortunately distracted by its pandemic setting and the kite reel extends to breaking point.

The bottom line: Sumptuous