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REVIEW – Silence (2012)

November 13, 2013

SilenceFilmJuice have my review of Pat Collins’ art house travelogue Silence. The plot (such as it is) revolves around a sound-recordist who is dumped by his German partner. Depressed and more than a little lost, the sound-recordist reacts to his personal tragedy by returning to the Donegal coast in Ireland in order to make recordings of places completely devoid of human presence. However, whilst engaging in this anti-social dalliance, the sound-recordist realises that the sound of silence might yield something more than an absence of arsehole humans… something deeper and more spiritual. As I explain in my review, Silence is essentially a cinematic reconstruction of the experience of watching an art house film. In an art house film, the director presents you with a collection of beautiful images and invites you to reflect upon the thoughts, feelings and memories these images bring forth. In the case of the sound-recordist, the sound of silence summons memories of a childhood spent in an isolated fishing village on a tiny island off the Irish coast. A little while ago, I wrote something about Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (apologies for the fucked-up formatting) in which I argued that the film was an attempt to use cinematic techniques to induce a sort of spiritual experience in the audience:

While there are many films that use evocative imagery to explore the belief that there is something out there that is bigger than ourselves, Stalker moves beyond the purely representative in order to fundamentally alter the relationship between film and audience. Yes… the hidden systems of the Zone neatly mirror the type of magical thinking that underpins most religions, and yes… the perversely benign Room serves as an elegant symbol for any spiritual end-point you care to name, but the film does not simply represent a spiritual experience, it actually compels the audience to have one by encouraging them to seek meaning in the film in much the same way as the Stalker seeks meaning in the Zone and the spiritual seek meaning in the world. This state of forced sympathy with a man who is either deeply disturbed or deeply religious pays off in an absolutely mesmerising final scene in which the Stalker’s daughter appears to move a glass with her mind as a train roars past in the background: Did the Zone actually exist or was it all a fantasy? Did the daughter move the glass or was it the train? Was the daughter gaining magical powers the Stalker’s reward for reaching the Room in the correct state of mind? Did the Stalker’s visits to the Zone alter the DNA he passed on to his daughter? Tarkovsky’s film is so rich and complex that these questions can be answered in any number of ways but which interpretation you happen to choose invariably comes down to a leap of faith no different to that of the Stalker or that of the spiritually minded.

Silence is clearly an attempt to reproduce this same trick by inviting the audience to identify with the sound-recordist and open themselves up to the possibility of a deeper silence. Unfortunately, Silence is let down by Collins’ failure to follow through and show us what this process of reflection and silent-listening might produce. In Stalker, we have the appearance of a dog and the possibility of the stalker’s daughter Monkey acquiring supernatural powers. In Silence we simply have the possibility that the entire thing might well have been a waste of time:

While Tarkovsky perfectly captures the combination of profound understanding and acute alienation that accompanies life-changing experiences, Collins is rather unclear on what it is that his protagonist actually finds at the end of his journey: Is it a sense of community? Is it the understanding that he should never have left his home? All we see is a wind-swept derelict.

It may seem a little unfair to unfavorably compare Silence to one of the greatest films of all time but I see the comparison as a compliment. Many directors reach for the art house tool kit and produce nothing more than a series of pretty images that signify nothing more than the compositional skill of the cinematographer. Silence is not an entirely successful film but it is an attempt to reconnect with an approach to filmmaking that has lain dormant for far too long. Great cinema should not merely entertain or move, it should transform and films like Stalker and Silence should be celebrated for pursuing that transformative potential, even if it is ultimately unsuccessful.

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