‘Broken Keys’ Review: A Musician Defies ISIS in Lebanon’s Oscar Contender

An endangered musician in a Syrian town controlled by ISIS must sell his beloved piano in order to escape the country in the gripping drama “Broken Keys.” It marks the feature debut of Columbia U.-trained, Lebanese writer-director Jimmy Keyrouz. Inspired by real events, the feature is an expansion of his 2016 Student Academy Award-winning short “Nocturne in Black.” Now boasting a score by Keyrouz’s famous compatriot Gabriel Yared and a Cannes 2020 label designation, the film combines real-life crisis, potent emotion and an ending of stunning defiance making it a strong entry for Lebanon in the Academy’s international feature competition.

In Sekka, twentysomething pianist Karim (Tarek Yaacoub, very good) shares a bombed-out building with his cousin Maya (Sara Abi Kanaan), an aspiring law student, and many other neighbors of assorted ages and occupations, some of whom belong to an underground resistance opposing ISIS. Since playing or listening to music is one of many things forbidden by the extremist group, Tarek plans to pay a smuggler to get him to Europe, where he hopes to fulfill his dream of performing with an orchestra.

The only thing of value Tarek has left is the piano, which once belonged to his mother, and could conceivably fund his escape if he finds a buyer. But after a neighborhood informer tells ISIS about the instrument, a convoy of black-clad gunmen, including Karim’s childhood acquaintance Abdallah (Julian Farhat), descend upon the peaceful compound and leave both the piano and Karim worse for wear.

Facing a deadline to pay the smuggler, Karim decides to try and restore the piano. He receives help from his neighbor and part-time boss, the wise, optimistic second-hand store proprietor Abou Moussa (Mounir Maasri, spot on) and a resourceful orphaned youngster Ziad (Ibrahim El Kurdi).

This compelling setup is practically identical to that of “Nocturne in Black,” with Yaacoub and Farhat repeating their roles as antagonists. But “Broken Keys” expands the action with a longish, less persuasive subplot following Karim on what seems like a fool’s quest to the distant town of Ramza, where he hopes to find a piano exactly like his own that he can strip for parts, as well as adding more chilling scenes showing the brutality of ISIS.

The out-of-town detour, where Tarek meets and is saved by (and subsequently saves) a beautiful Kurdish resistance fighter (Rola Beksmati) awkwardly hits some of the beats of a conventional romance flick. This section, shot in Mosul, Iraq, on eerie bomb-blasted streets where ISIS members actually fought and died, features a surprisingly tepid score by Gabriel Yared.

Another small script quibble: When Tarek returns to Sekka, mission accomplished, and just two days before the smuggler departs, is there really enough time for him to fix the piano, rescue Ziad from the clutches of the ISIS school and bond with the lad while playing soccer? Thank goodness for the flexibility of movie time.

Despite these niggling issues, the script is notable for the way it reinforces the necessity of hope and the respite, courage and inspiration that artists provide in dark times.

When it comes to directing, Keyrouz displays a talent for helming action and definitely knows how to build tension. This iteration of the story features well-known Lebanese actors in the smaller parts, and supporting players such as Adel Karam (“The Insult”) as the leader of the compound’s resistance and Gabriel Yammine (“Good Morning”) as the potential buyer of the piano register strongly.

The film impresses on the tech side, particularly the mobile lensing of Joe Saade who helps set a scene by sinuously moving the camera though the shadowy ruins of buildings, tunnels and cellars. The tension-inducing sound design, full of explosions, gunfire, crying babies and moans — and occasionally piano music — doesn’t really require a score.

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