Los Hermanos/The Brothers
2021, NR, 84 min. Directed by Marcia Jarmel, Ken Schneider.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 28, 2021
Family is everything to be sure, but a family so thoroughly drenched in a passion for music as the one observed in this ecstatically euphonic documentary – which transcends mere familial bonds, nationalities, chaotic geopolitics, and indeed time itself – is an extraordinaria thing. In Los Hermanos/The Brothers, filmmakers Jarmel and Schneider (And Then They Came for Us) focus their lens on Cuban American virtuoso brothers Ilmar and Aldo López-Gavilán, and how the extended Cold War divided them.
Sons of renowned conductor Guido López-Gavilán and concert pianist Teresita Junco, Ilmar is a violin prodigy, younger brother Aldo an enthusiastic pianist and their paterfamilias a renowned conductor. As one family member puts it, “Our kids were practically condemned to be musicians one way or another.” Born post-revolution in the 1970s, they are separated when 14-year-old Ilmar is sent to study his craft in the USSR and later at the Reina Sofia Conservatory. (Regarding Ilmar’s time away, his father dryly notes that “he even learned to dance salsa! He’s no good at it but he can pull it off.”) Aldo stays in Havana, racking up wins at the UNICEF Children’s Competition before moving on to London’s Trinity College of Music in 1998. Ilmar eventually lands a full-time gig with the Harlem String Quartet but the brothers remain separated by 60 years of U.S. and Cuban travel sanctions. They yearn to play and eventually record together but it’s not until President Obama declares an easing of the decades-old travel sanctions that their shared impossible dream appears to be actually feasible. Ilmar reunites with his boisterous clan and Aldo scores a coveted visa to visit the States and tour the country with his sibling. Concerts in Rockport, Massachusetts, Detroit, the Napa Valley Jazz Festival, and finally the Lincoln Center. Their eventual collaboration in a studio seems assured until – no spoiler this – Donald Trump usurps the White House and promptly reverses Obama’s promise to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas." Suddenly it’s artist versus ideologue with no assured outcome.
Los Hermanos's fly-on-the-wall focus on the brothers twisty, unpredictable predicament feels scattershot at times. A brief history lesson that touches on communist Cuba’s food rationing system discussed while the brothers venture out into Havana in search of an elusive bottle of soy sauce feels unnecessary, but that’s a minor misstep in an otherwise embracing film. As the younger, rougher around the edges Aldo says, “Through music you can sometimes change more things than you can with politics.” Given the recent presidential transition one can only hope for a reinstatement of Obama’s forward-looking policies aimed at ending outdated, adversarial, and ultimately pointless conflict. And better music, no matter where it comes from.