________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 17 . . . . April 29, 2005


Mr. Mergler's Gift.

Beverly Shaffer (Director). Germaine Ying Gee Wong (Producer). Sally Bochner (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2004.
30 min., 39 sec., VHS, $99.95.
Order Number: C9104 116.

Subject Heading:
Piano teachings-Canada.

Grades 4 and up / Ages 9 and up.

Review by Marsha Skrypuch.

*** /4

Mr. Mergler's Gift is about how a chance meeting in the park between an old man and young girl has a life-transforming effect on both of them.

     Daniel Mergler is a 77-year-old man suffering from colon cancer. He is in the last year of his life, has just retired from teaching piano and is sitting on a park bench, not doing well emotionally. A man and his daughter ride their bicycles through the park; then the father sits on the next bench while his nine-year-old daughter plays on a swing. The father and Daniel Mergler strike up a conversation.

     Daniel Mergler learns that the family is from China and that they just moved to Montreal three months earlier. What piques his interest is that the father has purchased a piano for his daughter. The fact that this new immigrant family with scant financial resources saw a piano for their daughter as such a high priority touches his heart. The father calls his daughter, Xin Ben, over and introduces her and asks her to sings a song in English. What amazes Mr. Mergler is that she sings in perfect pitch. He offers to take her on as a student.

     He doesn't tell them about his cancer diagnosis, and the two have 26 wonderful lessons together. Xin Ben loves coming to her lessons so much that she runs to his door.

     Mr. Mergler's apartment was tiny, with lots of books and two pianos. Xin Ben notices that he has pictures of his students, and she realizes that teaching is the most important aspect of his life. He has never married, and he has no other family.

     Mr. Mergler soon realizes that Xin Ben is the most gifted student he has ever had. She learns with such speed and with such feeling that it exhilarates him, and he forgets about his illness. He teaches her about the great composers and gets her to read about them in books from the library. He tells her to know the story of the music in her mind so that when she plays it, the story is playing in her mind.

     After the twenty-sixth lesson, Mr. Mergler's cancer progresses to the point that he becomes very weak and can no longer walk. He falls down while alone at his apartment and needs to call 911. He mails Xin Ben's parents a note and tells them of his situation. He asks that they visit him but not bring their daughter because it would be too emotional for them.

     This is a sad time for all of them. Xin Ben's piano lessons mean more to her than anything else, and she is devastated by her teacher's illness. Mr. Mergler feels a responsibility to Xin Ben. He cares for her like a daughter, but he also recognizes that her gift cannot be wasted. His fear is that she will end up with a mediocre teacher who will not develop her talent.

     From his deathbed, Mr. Mergler arranges an appointment with Alexandre Solokov, who is an extraordinary piano teacher at the local university. Xin Ben plays for him and wows him. Mr. Mergler is thrilled, "She is set up for life now."

     Mr. Mergler tells her parents that they have a treasure in their family. He says that Xin Ben shouldn't be a lawyer or an accountant, because that would be living death for her. They agree. Mr. Mergler is able to die in peace. He bequeaths to Xin Ben a bust of Beethoven that had been given to him by his mother.

     "Teaching is one of the great relationships of life," says Mr. Mergler.

     Throughout the documentary, Xin Ben Yu plays the piano so the viewer is able to experience her giftedness first hand. The actual people involved play themselves in the documentary, even Mr. Mergler on his deathbed. The style is pared down and linear, but very effective.

     This is a subtle but powerful documentary. Not only is it about how one can "seek timeless moments and transcend ourselves" through music, but it is about how we can transcend ourselves by helping others, even in times of our greatest need. Mr. Mergler gets as much as he gives by helping Xin Ben.

      This documentary will be useful in a number of cross-curricular activities. It is a good lead-in into classical music appreciation and is also useful in showing cross-cultural connections. The documentary would also be a good launching off point for discussions about death and dying.


Marsha Skrypuch of Brantford, ON, is the author of three picture books and three young adult novels.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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