Perhaps more than any other genre of film, documentary film-making has the chance to enthrall me with stories that would otherwise seem boring or out of my personal wheelhouse of what I define as “interesting.” From Day 1 of this blog’s existence (literally since the first film I reviewed was the wonderful opera documentary In the Shadow of the Stars), documentaries have proven their resilience over and over again. I had dreaded putting in this particular film, 1999’s Speaking in Strings: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, for the two months I’d had it at home from Netflix because a documentary about the “bad girl” of classical concert violin seemed about as interesting as a trip to the orthodontist. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
At the film’s ceneter is gifted violin prodigy, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. An Italian immigrant to the U.S. at the age of eight, Nadja showed an exceptional talent for the violin at the young age. And after studying at Julliard, Nadja won a prestigious violin competition which skyrocketed her to the forefront of the classical violin community. Nadja’s visceral and explosive style garnered her as much praise as it did harsh criticism from the classical music establishment. Like many geniuses, Nadja’s personal life is as explosive and passionate as her music and Nadja’s battles her inner demons of depression, alienation, and loneliness to create her haunting and powerful music.
The film is almost devastatingly intimate. The film’s non-linear structure threw me off for the first fifteen minutes or so of the film but once I got a feel for how the film-maker (Paola di Floria) was dizzying the film’s audience much the same way that Nadja dizzied her concert hall audiences with her theatrics, I got into the flow of the film. By the film’s end, you feel as if you got an invasively personal look in Nadja’s life. With her suicide attempt, her disaffection with the majority of the world around her, the wounds from being lashed by much of the stiffer parts of the classical musical community, and her abandonment issues, you seem to know Nadja so well and how she turns that pain into such amazing music.
The filmmaker’s decision to make a movie about Nadja must be commended. Because I know how on paper, this film doesn’t sound like much. But whether it’s the regular use of absolutely gorgeous violin music (often performed live by Nadja herself) or interesting personality that takes center stage, Speaking in Strings never bores. It is a constantly engaging meditation on both the price of genius as well as the factors that might create a genius in the first place. As far as individuals that have taken center stage in a documentary that I’ve reviewed for this blog, I’m not sure if one has commanded the screen as much as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.
Final Score: A-