Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements
“Moonlight Sonata is an affecting work that gives full texture to the meaning of being deaf, hard of hearing, or having loved ones in the community.”
Title: Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements (2019)
Director: Irene Taylor Brodsky 👩🏼🇺🇸
Producer: Tahria Sheather 👩🏼🇦🇺🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
After its world premiere at Sundance this year, Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements went on to pick up three nominations for top awards. No hardware yet—but through no deficiencies of its own, and there’s still time. It heads to SFFILM Festival tomorrow and makes its international premiere at HotDocs at the end of the month.
I caught this gem at New York City’s ReelAbilities, which celebrates disabled artists working in entertainment. Documentarian Irene Taylor Brodsky opened the festival with this “spiritual sequel” to her 2007 film, Hear and Now. Picking up more than a decade later, Brodsky once again welcomes viewers into her home as we observe her family’s ever-changing relationship with sound and silence.
Specifically, we meet three generations of people: Brodsky’s parents, who are both deaf; their children (including Irene), who are hearing; and their grandchildren, of whom Jonas Brodsky is technically deaf but whose cochlear implants allow him to hear with proficiency.
We see the ways one genetic trait has altered each of their lives, both in positive and frustrating ways. The narrative drama comes entirely through real-life occurrences and what may have begun as Brodsky’s curiosity about her son’s hearing loss becomes so much more, as Jonas’ youth and vitality finds a cosmic counterpart to the sunset decline of her father’s mental health.
Thanks to Brodsky’s patient documentation, as well as the outside perspective that producer Tahria Sheather brings to the dynamic, audiences are treated to a poetic rumination on the passage of time as told through the lenses of disability and familial love.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Having Brodsky and Sheather behind the camera already ensures positive representation for women in film, especially for an industry that starkly favors male directors. (Keep in mind, just 4 directors of the 100 highest grossing films last year were women. Ouch.)
Onscreen, this translates to a relatively gender-neutral perspective. Moonlight Sonata focuses on Brodsky’s son Jonas, first as he begins to lose his hearing and then as he acquires cochlear implants at ages 4 and 8. Through this technology, Jonas has access to the hearing world and develops a close relationship with music. An upcoming piano recital provides the opportunity for a classic tale of struggle and triumph, as we track Jonas’ frustrations in preparing a difficult piece across months of hard work, leading up to the day of his performance. (His chosen song? Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, naturally.)
Jonas’ grandfather, Paul Taylor, provides the perfect foil by embodying the same physical condition but two generations earlier. To an extent, Paul’s wife Sally Taylor also serves as a window to the past, but it’s Paul’s diagnosis for dementia in the film’s third act that becomes an integral part of the narrative.
I’m not sure if a single person of color passes through Moonlight Sonata. The film shines a laser focus on one family unit, and that family happens to be white. Luckily, the lack of ethnic diversity never feels distracting since our story seldom departs from the Taylors and Brodskys at all.
As for the outside world, the documentary takes place in Portland, Oregon—a city that is already whiter than the national average, with 70% of the populace being white in 2016. It feels plausible, then, that the few non-family members who make it to the screen, such as Jonas’ piano teacher Colleen or the crowd that attends his piano recital, are also white.
I do want to point out, however, that this does follow a trend within disability representation that leans disproportionately white (and male). When #DisabilityTooWhite has gone viral, and academic studies have quantified the discrepancy, you know there’s work still to be done that falls outside the purview of Moonlight Sonata.
Bonus for Disability: +1.00
Instead, the film excels most during its authentic explorations of what it means to be deaf or hard of hearing. Rather than burden one individual with the full weight of representation, Moonlight Sonata spoils its audiences with a variety of protagonists.
How might Ludwig van Beethoven have felt when his hearing began to deteriorate during his twenties in the 1800s? How does that contrast with Sally and Paul Taylor, who lost their hearing during post-WWII America? It’s fascinating to find out that the hearing impaired schools they attended emphasized learning to speak as the primary form of communication. By today’s standards, forcing people with disabilities to adjust to the abled world—without even teaching them sign language—feels obviously problematic.
Meanwhile, the invention of cochlear implants have essentially made deafness “optional” for Jonas, whose body had time to adjust fully to his surgeries (unlike his grandparents, who got the implants in their mid-60s).
Another facet of disability comes to the fore through Paul’s dementia. Brodsky treats her father’s declining mental health with all the thoughtfulness she lends to the exploration of deafness, culminating in a heartfelt look at all the natural, if at times painful, ways that disability ebbs and flows throughout our lives.
Bonus for Age: +0.75
As mentioned, Paul plays a major role in this film. Alongside Sally, both are depicted with full complexity as adults who are well into their 70s.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.08/5
Moonlight Sonata stands as one of the most crucial films I’ve seen in the last year. It might not be hugely intersectional, which is what our scoring system prioritizes, but I couldn’t recommend a more affecting work that gives full texture to the meaning of being deaf, hard of hearing, or having loved ones in the community.
It’s one thing to educate yourself on disability and its effects—it’s another to rejoice in Paul’s satisfaction as he visibly relishes the autonomy of driving, or to giggle at the way Paul and Sally simply remove their hearing aids once their other grandson, toddler aged, starts to wail offscreen.
Through the universal languages of emotion and humor, Brodsky lets us into her family so that we may live through their ups and downs—their joys and sorrows. It’s a privilege to be a part of the experience.