Turns out, Gibberitia is a beautiful place with grassy streets, and everything looks golden and peaceful. But Celestine notices some strange things with the eyes of a newcomer. Birds chirp in the trees, and policemen race over with fire hoses, blasting them to the wind with water. People dress strangely; children wear exactly what their parents wear. There are random stoplights at certain corners, even though there’s no traffic, and when they flash red, the entire populace freezes in its tracks like statues. The courthouse is in the shape of a massive gavel. It’s clear Gibberitia’s “peace” is imposed by fiat. In Gibberitia, anything other than one-note music is forbidden. Melody is forbidden. An old bear plays a piano in the park, banging on one note repeatedly. Gibberitia’s motto is the depressing fatalistic: “That’s just how it is.”
Celestine, true to her “can-do” self, is determined to find the Musical Resistance. There’s got to be one, right? You can’t just ban music! People will continue to love music, gigantic judge’s gavel be damned! Meanwhile, Ernest gets sucked into the familial drama, which leads to him fleeing in the first place.
This all sounds like very serious business, and it is: the political critique is pointed and very well done. It’s not too heavy-handed, but the empty streets are eerie, especially the huge musical notes painted on alley walls as secret signals of solidarity. For children, the message is relevant to their young lives. There’s a lot here about feeling like you’re not part of the “in” group, of feeling misunderstood by your parents, of feeling the burden of expectations. In Gibberitia, sons do what their fathers do. You can’t just decide to be a musician! It’s unheard of!
“Ernest and Celestine” also evokes the dislocation of immigrants and refugees. Ernest knows what Gibberitia is like. There’s a reason he left. Yet he yearns for the sense of belonging only home can give. He has the lonely, longing heart of one in permanent exile.
The friendship between bear and mouse is truly touching and where the film’s real heart beats. Ernest and Celestine are so different. Ernest is old; Celestine is young. Ernest always ready to throw in the towel; Celestine is open to all possibilities. The two embody William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Celestine’s innocence is important, and Ernest’s experience is, too. They come together, though, in tenderness and understanding. It’s beautiful.
Now playing in theaters.