by Sophie Terakes

Year:  2022

Director:  Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar

Rated:  PG

Release:  20 June 2024

Distributor: Potential Films

Running time: 114 minutes

Worth: $16.50
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Oulaya Amamra, Lina El Arabi, Niels Arestrup, Zinedine Soualem

… undeniably heartfelt, albeit cheesy …

Early in Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s film, Divertimento, revered maestro Sergiu Celibidache (Niels Arestrup) explains that the role of the conductor is to provide the orchestra with “energy” and emotion. “Without a conductor,” he says, “there’s no transcendence.” The biopic tells the true story of prodigiously talented, seventeen-year-old French twins Fettouma (Lina El Arabi), an accomplished cellist, and Zahia (Oulaya Amamra), an aspiring conductor. Raised in Stains (a low-rise, working-class suburb), the film follows the girls during their senior year of high school at prestigious Parisian conservatorium, Lycée Racine, in 1995.

Certainly, Divertimento’s vivacity, or its “energy” as Sergiu would put it, springs from the budding young conductor at its centre. The film elegantly conveys the way in which music enables the twins to translate their emotions into art, each of their successes and setbacks inspiring a new melodic interlude. For example, soon after the school principal rescinds Zahia’s conducting privileges because she is “a woman,” a closeup shows her on the train, gazing into the distance. (At Racine, the twins are routinely overlooked by their teachers on the basis of their gender and ridiculed by their classmates for their “suburban” upbringing.) Seething with silent rage, Zahia waves her hands, conducting the imaginary orchestra playing in her mind. Her fingers graze the air with controlled precision while her brow is furrowed in concentration, channelling her frustration into a magnificent, sweeping symphony.

Yet, Zahia takes pleasure in hard-won victories and channels her joy into the music, too. Her first rehearsal with Divertimento (the socioeconomically-diverse orchestra that the twins found) is infused with triumphant delight, a wide-shot showing her in full flight as the music happily soars.

As these scenes attest, Amamra gives an emotionally layered, dynamic performance. While there are flashes of Tracy Flick (the immensely disciplined teenage protagonist of Alexander Payne’s 1999 film Election) in Zahia’s relentless dedication to her goals, Amamra also imbues her character with great warmth. As she conducts, Amamra often widens her eyes and offers a faint smile, diffusing Zahia’s intensity with a subtle softness.

Divertimento is an undeniably heartfelt, albeit cheesy, film. It relies heavily on familiar aphorisms (such as “music… can change people”) and culminates in a rather saccharine display of unity, but it wears these limitations with a loveable innocence. The film never achieves the kind of artistic transcendence that Sergiu describes, but it is full of passion, tenderness and vigour.