Film Reviews

Review: ‘The Strange Sound of Happiness’

Hot Docs 2018

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The Strange Sound of Happiness
(Italy/Germany, 89 min.)
Dir. Diego Pascal Panarello
Programme: The Changing Face of Europe (North American Premiere)

Some say the happiest sound is the noise of children’s laughter. Happiness could be the sound of birds chirping or waves crashing upon the beach. Others, the 1%, might say the clang of the stock market bell puts a smile on their faces.

Director Diego Pascal Panarello, on the other hand, finds life-changing serenity in the twang of a marranzanu. The instrument, also known as a khomus and a Jew’s harp, is an old tool that unleashes a remarkable sound despite its small size and simplicity. This sound is like the voice of God/Allah/Buddha/Meryl that saves Panarello when he returns home to Sicily feeling hopeless after losing his job and being dumped by his girlfriend. After hearing the divine call of the marranzanu in a Sicilian gift shop, he embarks on a zany journey to Siberia to learn more about the instrument.

The marranzanu proves a novel instrument as Panarello masters its range and tones. It sounds like a fuzzy didgeridoo, or an electric razor, and throws a surprising volume. In the deep freeze of Yakutia, Siberia, elders teach him the legacy of the instrument they call a khomus. One plays it by pressing it between the lips like a harmonica, vibrating a delicate steel rod held within a harp-like shell while plucking an equally delicate lever. The harp is as eccentric as Panarello is, so it’s no wonder they become such kindred spirits.

The Yakutians welcome this funny and inquisitive character into their lives as he commits himself to the khomus like a monk devoting himself to enlightenment. He constantly pesters the elderly guide at the nearby khomus museum, which never seems to have a visitor besides Panarello, and improves his performance while playing and learning from the best.

Panarello is a playful guide and his eccentricity invites one to go along with his bizarre ride of self-discovery. The Strange Sound of Happiness has a playful structure in which Panarello begins and ends the film in Sicily searching for cicadas. These insects warm the countryside with their distinct buzz in the summer heat, yet they initially prove elusive as the filmmaker wanders the fields hoping to lay a finger on these melodious bugs. Panarello finds parallelism and symmetry in the striking landscapes of Sicily and Siberia and finds chords of common grandeur in the two corners of the world that inspire him to hit higher notes.

The musical sequences of The Strange Sound of Happiness provide a thrill as the little instrument shows that no voice is too small to emit a thunderous sound. The khomus provides an entrancing soundtrack as extended sequences hypnotize a viewer with the instrument’s futuristic vibrations. Panarello’s odd attraction to the instrument inspires audiences to seek contentment off the beaten path and to challenge their expectations. More importantly, the entrancing sound of the harp inspires audiences to reconsider their definitions of happiness as they find the right tools to bring notes of joy.

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.

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