Screening across the country is a 15-minute film short called Crescendo from independent writer-director Alonso Alvarez Barreda (Historia de un letrero). It is not coming to a theater near you, and surprisingly, this is by design. Instead of debuting in multiplexes or arthouse cinemas, early on its creators decided upon exclusive screenings for pregnancy crisis centers across the country, with the goal of raising $10 million for them. This is an unconventional marketing strategy in the entertainment industry, but then this is an unconventional film.
Since its release, the filmmakers have met half their fund drive objective, and this past fall’s release of Crescendo on DVD is designed to complete this goal. With each DVD purchase, the film’s distributor Movie to Movement, will donate one to a pregnancy center in order to continue the benefit screenings. Beyond the fundraising, the short was conceived to inspire, encourage, and convince expectant mothers, who believe themselves out of options, that their hope resides within themselves, in their very wombs. Dr. Alveda King, niece of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has hailed it for “touch[ing] the heart and soul of life’s bittersweet song with a powerful promise … If the notes are left in God’s hand, he will create a masterpiece.” Already Crescendo has taken the film festival circuit by storm. By winning 15 awards, including Best Short Film at the Hollywood Film Festival, it has insured its acceptance in the moviemaking mainstream. This too is part of the unique strategy behind the short.
Crescendo comes from the same talent behind Bella – executive producer Eduardo Verástegui (José in Bella and Anacleto González Flores in For Greater Glory); producer Jason Jones (co-executive producer of Bella, associate producer of The Stoning of Soraya M.); producer Leo Severino (Bella); and actress Ali Landry (Celia in Bella). Movie to Movement, which brought audiences Bella, is presenting Crescendo, in conjunction with Metanoia Films, Cornerstone Media, Wama Films, and Noble Pictures. Probably the most famous name attached to this project is Pattie Mallette, mother of pop sensation Justin Bieber and author of Nowhere But Up: The Story of Justin Bieber’s Mom, the memoir in which she recounts experiences at least as harrowing as those of Crescendo’s female protagonist. Mallette lends her presence to the film in a follow-up personal testimony, and it is her celebrity clout, and her son’s, which the filmmakers pray can be parlayed into national exposure. In the meanwhile, 10% of each DVD sale goes to Mallette’s foundation, Round 2, which helps women in situations similar to hers.
The story begins in the Holy Roman Empire of the 18th century with Maria (Montserrat Espadalé), Hausfrau to a philandering and abusive drunk (actor Matthew Temple, hissing his lines with the nastiness of a Klaus Kinski). She is expecting and, fearful of bringing a child into her hellish world, on the verge of procuring poison to end both her own sad state and that of her unborn child. On a collision course with this tragic heroine is a trio of comic bumblers who could give Laurel and Hardy in The Music Box a run for their money. Finally the fateful intersection of these five will climax in a revelatory crescendo destined to echo throughout history.
Despite its distant century and country, Crescendo manages to speak to Everytime and Everyplace by powerfully capturing the overpowering desperation and despair inherent to the Everywoman overwhelmed by seemingly impossible circumstances. Its universal message speaks to all times and all places. But who is this Maria? To reveal that would be to spoil the film’s surprise finale, so read no further if you prefer preserving the secret. Read on, however, if you agree that the soul of this emotional story is not to be found in any plot twist.
The clue to the ending is foreshadowed in the scoring of the film’s trailer to Symphony No. 7 in A Major – he who has ears to hear, let him hear. The composition comes from the same virtuoso who delivered posterity the Missa Solemnis in D Major, the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, and the “Ode to Joy” melody sung from church pews to the lyrics “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” Who is Maria? She is Maria Magdalena van Beethoven, mother to the towering composer who forever changed the world with his monumental music and a heroine in her own right.
Though the message of hope is at the heart of Crescendo, the biopic short succeeds at working on several levels at once. By virtue of its Hollywood talent and professional production quality, including actors from a range of upscale projects, it cannot be fairly dismissed as simply a pro-life commercial. In fact, the film’s deft but delicate touch in confronting the Difficult Decision that Maria contemplates runs the risk of subtlety. As in the Ernest Hemingway story “Hills Like White Elephants,” the word “abortion” is not once uttered – nor is “faith” or “God” – a missed opportunity if the short only aspired to propaganda. Instead it is drama, and takes itself as such. Impressively, Crescendo manages to escape the stigma of the Christian “alternative subculture” niche that Image editor and publisher Gregory Wolfe decried in his essay “Art, Faith, and the Stewardship of Culture.” As with Bella, Crescendo boldly crosses the threshold into the movie mainstream.
Some may even question whether Crescendo’s approach is too highbrow for the kind of outreach the filmmakers are trying to accomplish. With its German dialogue subtitled into English and a classical music score, Crescendo trusts its audience’s intelligence, regardless of their socio-economic background or education level, where a lesser film would underestimate them. Its spirit of égalité, in this regard, would please Beethoven himself who held a profound belief in the equality of mankind. In that selfsame egalitarian spirit, studio Movie to Movement has made it possible for anyone to host a screening of Crescendo by contacting them at www.cpcmovie.com. With Crescendo, the filmmakers are doing more than paying lip service to their cause. In the New York area, Good Counsel, a nonprofit pregnancy services ministry, has sponsored several screenings around the city. Its founder Christopher Bell, along with wife Joan and their children, lodge and assist expecting women with no place to turn. They have, on occasion, walked the extra mile by allowing these mothers to sleep on an office couch or cot, or even the chapel, whenever there was “no room in the inn.” There are many more heroic stories about those laboring in the vineyards such as Bell’s, enough to inspire many an Eroica Symphony.
The filmmakers shrewdly understand the basic need for a handsomely-mounted production if the short is to compete in the mainstream market, even if they are not after box office – future plans for Crescendo are to release it on YouTube and other free social media platforms in 2014 with the hope of reaching millions of women across the world. “It had to have the best production value,” producer Jones told Legatus Magazine. “I recognized that if we didn’t have the best quality set, wardrobe or costumes, we would fail.” In that vein, it deserves to stand beside the very varied films based on the renown composer’s life – Immortal Beloved (1994) from Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions, Copying Beethoven (2006), Beethoven Lives Upstairs (1992), Beethoven’s Nephew (1988) by Andy Warhol’s director Paul Morrissey, or Disney’s The Magnificent Rebel (1962) – and could even serve as a “prelude” or “overture” before viewing any of those biopics.
Discussing British explorer Captain James Cook’s voyage to Tahiti, one of the comedic foils marvels, “Can you imagine doing something that changes the world?,” and by the story’s end history will say, alongside Beethoven’s tutor, Josef Haydn, in Nick Dear’s teleplay Eroica, “Everything is different from today.” Yet Crescendo is careful not to promise every mother a Wunderkind, but hope. Epic though the birth and life of Beethoven was, no event can rank as epochal as the Heilsgeschichte ushered in by the blessed fruit of another Maria’s womb nearly two millennia prior, and it is this fullness of grace that radiates outward through the ages when it is allowed. What Crescendo dares propose is that this grace, borne of metanoia, possesses the power to transform not only history with “the joy of living” and “the triumph song of life,” but even the very Zeitgeist and Weltanschauung of a generation.