'Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements' is a Great Work of Love

As science eradicates deafness, a mother ponders the extinction of a community.

A still from Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements  by Irene Taylor Brodsky, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Irene Taylor Brodsky

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Twelve years ago, filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky documented her parents as they left a lifetime of deafness for a new universe of sound after receiving cochlear implants. Hear and Now offered emotionally gripping insight into how we define our humanity through the struggles that her parents faced as they confronted the hearing world. Science is in the process of eradicating deafness. Is that a victory, or a defeat?

The director returns to this conversation in Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements. Brodsky’s parents go before the camera once again, but only as much as to provide context for the new deaf experience that her son Jonas is living within the 21st Century. As a toddler, Jonas underwent cochlear implant surgery as well, and as a result, he navigates society in a way that his grandparents never could.

His newfound passion for Ludwig van Beethoven‘s “Piano Sonata No. 14,” a piece written when the composer’s hearing was rapidly deteriorating, only highlights this differentiation. A group of people is slipping away into oblivion, and while some see this as a triumph of humanity’s technological superiority, Brodsky’s parents tap them on the shoulders to rebuke, “Hey, I love my life.”

Brodsky obsessively exposes her family before the camera, and while they may not always be as enthused as she is by this process, they cannot deny her passion for documentation. They’re used to having a camera in their face. If the previous documentary wasn’t already proof enough, we also encounter endless hours of home videos depicting the early days of Jonas’ life. Brodsky seemingly captured every one of his moments, from birth to diagnosis to surgery and recovery. Her father was no different, a man with a movie camera glued to his grip delivering oodles of 8mm footage for Brodsky’s future use. We see it all, and we feel it all.

Stitching this deeply intimate portrait together are several bursts of animation depicting Beethoven’s construction of the “Moonlight Sonata.” These segments, crafted by Jordan Domont and Brian Kinkley, act as an emotional approximation of the composer’s agony and reflect the torment that both Jonas as his grandparents endure as they beat against the hearing world. Of course, through that anguish, an extraordinary piece of art was generated, and relief only comes through creation. In battling Beethoven’s art, Jonas challenges the line between silence and sound. Or better yet, accepts it.

Normalcy is a fallacy. We make painstaking strives to manage our lives, sculpting and punishing our bodies to make them look like those we see on photoshopped magazine covers and red carpet premieres. Worse yet, we’re told that a person is made up of 10 toes, 10 fingers, two eyes, and two ears. No. Life is life. We’re born into whatever we’re born into. We have what we have, and we make it work for us.

Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements is a great work of love. Brodsky can only make sense of her world by putting it under the microscope. In jamming a lens in her family’s faces, she encourages them to make sense of what they have and where they are. As “Piano Sonata No. 14” was therapy for Beethoven, so is this film for Brodsky, Jonas, and her parents. Whatever empathy or awareness we glean from the endeavor is an added bonus.