All of us have those sounds that touch some deep part of our souls, triggering memories and emotions that might otherwise lay dormant. Like scents tied to childhood — the smell of a censer for lapsed Catholics, or the perfume of a grandmother gone too soon — sounds can transport us across time and space to other places and parts of our lives. For me, who grew up surrounded by the ocean, it is the sound of a buoy bell, ringing in a lazy rhythm with the rise and fall of the water. Hook my body up to a tangle of electrodes, and I’m certain you’d find that every part of me relaxes a bit the moment I hear that sound.
For Sicilian filmmaker Diego Pascal Panarello, the sound that has stayed with him is that of the diminutive musical instrument known as the marranzano, or mouth harp (or jaw harp, Jew’s harp, scacciapensieri… the list goes on). Scarcely larger than the mouth used to play it, the marranzano (I’ll stick here with the Sicilian name) is one of the world’s most ancient instruments, appearing in Chinese art from the 4th Century BCE. Its sound is, by design, unique to the player, as it relies on the physiology of the body — the shape of the mouth and tongue, the breath of the user — to craft its haunting vibrations.
For Panarello, the instrument became an obsession; the result of his fascination is the fantasy/documentary blend The Strange Sound of Happiness, which screens this week as part of Amherst Cinema’s Sound and Vision film series. It finds the director, who is also the star, returning to Sicily at the age of 40. Dumped by his girlfriend, jobless, his musician dreams dashed, Panarello is at loose ends until he rediscovers the marranzano after hearing its twanging call in a Sicilian gift shop (where the instrument is as common as a lobster magnet in Maine).
Filled with new purpose, a reinvigorated Panarello sets out on a mystical quest to discover the roots of the instrument, and eventually finds his way to the icy flats of Yakutia, in Russia’s Siberia. There, the native people welcome the explorer into their world, even as they seem bemused by his obsession with the marranzano (they call it the khomus — another name to add to that list). Considered by locals a national instrument and a symbol of happiness itself, the khomus even has its own museum, although Panarello might be its only regular visitor, other than the guide who is forced to endure the director’s ongoing quest.
Now, you might have next to no interest in the marranzano/scacciapensieri/khomus, and that would certainly be… understandable. Its twang, however evocative in the right context (as it was when used by the great composer Ennio Morricone in the theme to spaghetti western For a Few Dollars More) is not for everyone. But whether or not the instrument is the thing for you, Panarello’s journey, however quixotic, has something to it that will reverberate with all of us.
The Strange Sound of Happiness, August 7, 7 p.m., Amherst Cinema, 28 Amity St., Amherst
Also this week: another brand of musical obsession comes to Cinemark Theaters in Hadley and West Springfield when Bring the Soul: The Movie arrives for a regular run. Following the K-pop supergroup BTS as they wrap up their European tour, the film aims to give fans — a rabidly devoted group of followers known as ARMY — a glimpse into the band’s life offstage. As Jungkook, Suga, and the rest of the boy band talk about traveling the globe and performing to packed arenas, the film bounces back and forth between those more introspective moments and footage of the concert spectacles that are the daily bread of the Bangtan Boys.
Bring the Soul: The Movie, opens August 7, various times and locations
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.