The Concert's story line begins believably enough. The Communist Party apparatchik who controls the Soviet Union's prized Bolshoi Orchestra orders symphony conductor Andrei Filipov (Aleksei Guskov) to fire his Jewish and Gypsy musicians. The conductor refuses, and the agent of the all-invasive state lays off all the orchestra's musicians and reassigns the conductor to the role of janitor at the Bolshoi. Russia's legendary anti-Semitism renders the story's initial premise soberly credible.
Several decades later, we find the conductor-turned-janitor on his knees, cleaning the office of the man who had fired him. He hears the fax machine whir as it disgorges an urgent invitation for the Bolshoi to fill a last-minute vacancy at a prominent Paris concert hall. Filipov steals the invitation, rounds up his old musician friends—now driving an ambulance, dealing in black market cell phones, and even dubbing moans and groans for pornographic films—and offers them the chance to play again, as the Bolshoi, before an appreciative Paris audience.
The current orchestra, he tells them, "sounds like mating cats." We are much better, he says.
The Concert (in French and Russian with subtitles) is a rarity—a nonviolent revenge movie. (Compare its lack of carnage, perhaps, to Redford and Newman's 1973 The Sting.) The film's protagonist wields not an assault rifle but a conductor's baton. But he will get back at those who interrupted his search for "ultimate harmony."
These musicians haven't played together for 30 years. Some of them are rusty, and director Radu Mihaileanu shoots this ragtag bunch and their shabby Russian surroundings with a wobbly hand-held camera to emphasize the decay that set in under Communist rule. The Paris scenes, by way of contrast, are shot with care and polish to underscore the advanced economy of French society.
As the former Bolshoi musicians organize for their trip to Paris, the story line turns ludicrous and sets the stage for much comic relief. Can they pull it off? Can they convince the director of the Paris theater that they're the real thing? Can they acquire the necessary full-dress clothes and instruments? Can they raise the money for transportation? Can they handle the overwhelming details of transporting, housing, feeding, and rehearsing a touring orchestra?
One major theme of The Concert is the relation of the genuine to the fake and of the real to the pretentious. This is fitting, since it was Russian society that gave us the persistent myth of the Potemkin village in which a nobleman is said to have built fake villages in the Crimea with which to impress the empress, Catherine the Great. Thus we learn that the ex-conductor's wife has an unusual profession: supplying "guests" for weddings, "mourners" for funerals, and "protestors" for political rallies. Because a wealthy gangster with few friends wants to stage a bigger wedding celebration than his rival, the conductor's wife rounds up 1,000 rent-a-guests. The gangster is a satisfied customer in a Potemkin society.