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Even If I Lose Everything: Portrait of Arvo Pärt

Directed by Dorian Supin, Even If I Lose Everything is a 2015 documentary about Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. This film is Supin’s third documentary, and his second film about Arvo Pärt (the first was the 2002 film, 24 Preludes for a Fugue). Even If I Lose Everything is made of several distinct visual braids that come together to form a cohesive whole. It includes concert and rehearsal footage, video clips filmed by Pärt and his wife, Nora, interview segments with Immo Mihkelson, and older footage of Pärt wandering around in grassy fields and exploring hot springs. Some of this footage is shown hovering above seats as if it’s being screened in a movie theater. There are also scenes filmed from the inside of an airplane as it takes off, as well as a reoccurring overhead shot of a lonely road that cuts through the Estonian countryside.

Even If I Lose Everything is both an exploration of Pärt’s composition process and a chronicle of his private and public life. On the public side, we see Pärt as the famous composer; he gently guides musicians and singers through the nuances of his music, he converses with conductors and interviewers, and he sits and listens thoughtfully at rehearsals and public performances. On the private side, we see Pärt as husband, playful grandfather, and Christian contemplative. Although he is a composer both publicly and privately, in his home setting, we witness the actual process of composition, which is quite solitary.

An older, balding man with a thick beard sits in front of a keyboard piano. He sits near a window that looks out into a forest.
Arvo Pärt works at his keyboard.

In many ways, Even If I Lose Everything resembles Pärt’s music: it is contemplative, emotionally evocative, spacious, and spiritual. We see churches and catacombs, as well as icons of Jesus and various saints, but the most prominent religious image in this film is Mary, especially the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Her image is especially noticeable in the rooms where Pärt composes and plays music, so she is clearly important to him. This is also demonstrated in a rehearsal scene when Pärt tells a choir that they are singing “Maria” as if it is a commonplace word. Instead, he says they must sing “Maria” as if they have a lump in their throats, as if simply singing her name can move them to tears. This is the spiritual framework within which Pärt composes. The lyrics to his choral music almost always come from Biblical texts, and his music arises from a deeply sacred or even mystical realm of experience.

However, Pärt tells us in no uncertain terms that he must strike a balance between the deeper contemplative mode of experience and the outer, more earthly aspect of his being. He tells a story about something that happened after a very special performance of one of his pieces. The day after the performance, he and his wife were walking near the church where the performance took place. He carried celebratory flowers in hand and said he felt like “life was in full bloom.” Suddenly, his foot slipped, and he realized he had just stepped in fresh dog poop. Pärt laughs and says the message was clear: “Don’t get too high in the clouds.” Smiling, he says he still remembers that smell to this day.

The ongoing movement between transcendence and imminence, between spiritual yearning and the limitations (and smells) of earthly life, is a central facet of this film. It repeatedly manifests in different variations like a musical motif. Pärt appears to fully accept this dynamic balancing act, which he embraces with both humility and humor. This reminds me of the conversation he had with Björk about his music being a dialogue between two voices: one is a complex, subjective voice and the other is a simpler, more objective voice (Björk said it reminded her of Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio, which made Pärt grin from ear to ear).

Two men sit at a desk reviewing printed pages and musical manuscripts. An upright piano is in the background, and an image of Mary and baby Jesus sits atop it.
Arvo Pärt and Immo Mihkelson review Part’s notebooks.

Pärt’s deep wisdom about life is demonstrated in many of the workbook scenes with Immo Mihkelson. They review Pärt’s handwritten manuscripts, which are adorned with his thoughts, reveries, and contemplations. In one particularly moving scene, Pärt lays out his relationship with music in poetic form:

Music is my friend.

Understanding, empathic.

Forgiving, comforter.

A towel to dry tears of sadness.

A source for tears of happiness.

Liberation and flight.

But also a painful thorn.

In flesh and soul.

Setting free from illusions.

Teacher of humility.

In Even If I Lose Everything, Pärt is depicted as a man whose outer and inner ears are entirely open. He is attuned to the sounds of nature, the sound of music, and the sound of the sacred. The primary intention of this film is not to convey biographical information, but rather, to invite the viewer to  contemplate nature, sound, humanity, and spirituality with a heightened sense of receptivity. As an observer, I suggest letting this film wash over you. The film itself is not exciting in the conventional sense, but it is deeply stirring and inspiring. As a composer and musician myself, it’s almost impossible to watch it in one sitting, because I often find myself running to the piano. And that, to me, is a special kind of magic.

But there is something austere about this film. In many ways, Pärt resembles a monk or a saint living as a lay person, like a holy man in disguise. I don’t know if he would accept this observation, but there is one scene that, to me, seems to hint at this conclusion. In this scene, Pärt is standing in a dark catacomb looking at the body of a saint encased in glass. On the wall across from the saint is an image that looks startlingly like Pärt himself. It’s as if someone drew a portrait of him as a religious icon. Perhaps this was a simple coincidence, but it always gives me pause.

A movie screen floats above several empty theater seats. The screen features a brightly lit image of a choir dressed in black performing on the alter of a large cathedral.
Footage of a choir performance floats above theater seats.

In terms of physical media, the DVD copy of Even If I Lose Everything includes a beautifully printed booklet featuring comments by Supin, Mikhelson, and Toomis Siitan. There are lyrics to Pärt’s pieces paired with lush images from the film, as well as a list of Supin’s musical documentaries and a brief biography of Pärt. To my knowledge, this film is still only available via direct purchase. I hope it will eventually become available via streaming services, because it is a must-see film for fans of Pärt’s music, as well as interested listeners, musicians, composers, and contemplatives.

Toward the end of Even If I Lose Everything, Pärt explores the line that became title of the film itself, which was derived from one of his notebooks. He reads, “Even if I lose everything,” then says, “I don’t know what that means,” and laughs. He scans his handwritten score, hums the melody, then repeats the title again. He briefly describes the music on the page, and then suddenly sums up his entire philosophy of life, spirit, music, and self in a few words:

I don’t know. Even if I lose everything. It means that it all has no value. The value is somewhere else.

Even if I lose everything. Beautiful.

Written by Daniel Siuba

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