In 2016, writer-director Jimmy Keyrouz won the Student Academy Award for his short film Nocturne in Black about a pianist who tries to repair his piano after it has been destroyed by Islamist extremists.
With Broken Keys, he has expanded the story into a feature-length movie and retained Tarek Yaacoub in the leading role of Karim, the pianist.
Karim lives in a bombed-out building with a disparate group of people who are doing their best to survive in a town, vaguely located in Syria or Iraq, that has been taken over by brutal ISIS fighters. Among the activities the extremists have forbidden is playing and listening to music, a theme that was dealt with in the Academy Award-nominated Mauritanian film Timbuktu.
Some of Karim’s friends want him to participate in anti-ISIS activities, while others want Karim to stop playing his piano because it might attract attention. All Karim wants to do is escape to Europe and pursue his dream of playing in an orchestra. After someone snitches on him, ISIS fighters, including one of Karim’s childhood friends, burst in and destroy his piano.
Karim stubbornly decides to repair the piano, which he inherited from his mother. A group of street children agree to help him by raiding abandoned trash heaps and other locales. But some replacement parts, including the keys, are impossible to find. Karim learns of an old man in a distant town who owned the same piano, and he embarks on a dangerous journey to track it down. Along the way, Karim encounters a beautiful Kurdish anti-ISIS soldier (Rola Beksmati), who helps him on his quest. But once Karim makes it back, he is still faced with the dilemma of helping the resistance or escaping.
Keyrouz and his crew spent five days shooting in the rubble of Mosul, Iraq, driving two hours each way to get there each day.
Those, like me, who admire Lebanese cinema, might recognize Tarek Yaacoub from his role in the amusing satire Very Big Shot, and Adel Karam, who plays a resistance leader, from his role in the Oscar-nominated The Insult. The score for Broken Keys was composed by Gabriel Yared, who won an Oscar for The English Patient and also earned nominations for The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain.