United by music, divided by ideology

Brothers Ilmar Gavilan (left) and Aldo Lopez-Gavilan play together after years of separation in Los Hermanos. (Photo by Melissa Bunni Elian)

By Richard Ades

Music. Politics. Brotherly love. These three forces collide in Los Hermanos (The Brothers), a bittersweet documentary about siblings separated by 90 miles of ocean and 50 years of economic policy.

Ilmar Gavilan and younger brother Aldo Lopez-Gavilan were born into a musical Cuban family. As boys, both were encouraged to develop the talents they so obviously inherited from their parents, but rather than bringing them together, this shared interest soon tore them apart.

Aldo, a budding pianist and composer, was only 8 when 14-year-old Ilmar set off to Moscow to hone his skills as a violinist. Eventually settling in the United States (the documentary doesn’t explain how this came about), Ilmar was free to perform with just about anyone except the brother he left back in Cuba. Due to U.S. trade embargoes and travel restrictions against the communist society, collaborations between the two were nearly impossible.

The documentary, fluidly directed by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, draws a stark contrast between the brothers’ lifestyles. While Ilmar plays and tours with a chamber group called the Harlem Quartet, Aldo deals with the limitations of making music in a poor and isolated country. In all of Cuba, we learn, there are only two or three performance spaces with decent pianos. And when Aldo does play in a concert, he often is responsible for prep work that anywhere else would be handled by backstage technicians.

One thing is clear. Despite the differences in their daily lives, the brothers are alike in their devotion to their chosen art form. Ilmar is a gifted violinist, while Aldo’s keyboard virtuosity, particularly when he’s playing one of his own rhythmically complex pieces at breakneck speed, marks him as a musical genius.

For this reason, as well as their family ties, the brothers desperately want to play and record an album together. When Ilmar succeeds in visiting his homeland for the first time in years, it looks like this just might happen. But it’s not until Barack Obama becomes president and relaxes trade and travel restrictions against the island that they’re completely free to share their talents.

They even arrange a joint tour of American concert halls, as documented in the film’s most joyful moments. However, joy turns to dread when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump begins appearing on TV screens and threatens to reverse Obama’s conciliatory policies toward Cuba.

As concerned as Los Hermanos is with politics and brotherhood, it’s really the music that ties the film together and constitutes its greatest strength. Specifically, it’s the music of Aldo, which makes up the bulk of what we hear throughout. Whether fast, jazzy and avant-garde or slow, simple and heartfelt, it never fails to impress and delight.

It’s the music, if one reads between the lines, that also makes the film’s most salient political point. We realize that the U.S., by cutting itself off from that island to the south, is not only depriving two brothers of each other’s company—it’s also depriving us of the enjoyment we could be getting from extraordinary Cuban talents like Aldo Lopez Gavilan.  

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Los Hermanos will be available in theaters and via virtual screenings beginning May 14. For ticket information, visit hermanosbrothersfilm.info/screenings.