For cryin’ out quiet
Silence is the theme of a film so still you really could hear a pin drop, writes Donald Clarke
AH, THE TYRANNY of the visual. Pat Collins, an unclassifiable Irish talent, returns with another starkly beautiful, deliberately confounding quasi-documentary. Close your eyes after a first viewing and you will recall widescreen shots of lapping seas, big skies and sprawling wetlands.
Formerly a critic and festival programmer, Collins brings a Russian seriousness to his editing and his compositions. Sad men walk slowly across gorgeously forbidding backdrops painted in earth shades. Weather becomes a secondary character in the drama.
You could enjoy this film while wearing earmuffs.
That, however, would defeat the point of the exercise. Collins has set out to investigate (among other things) what we hear when we think we hear silence. You certainly couldn’t call the piece noisy. But the cooing corncrakes and rustling reeds are as important to the film’s appeal as are those great panoramic vistas. We haven’t been asked to listen so closely since Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola teased paranoid sensibilities with Blow Out and The Conversation. That is where the comparison with urban thrillers ends. It is always clear that nobody is likely to get shot in Silence.
The film begins in Berlin, where a sound engineer (Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride, also the co-writer) plans to make a trip home to the northwest of Ireland. We know we are in mainland Europe because we can here the sound of old-school, rickety trams in the background. Eoghan plans to seek out territory far from the noises made by modern men.
The film is directed towards a predetermined destination. But it doesn’t have anything you could call a plot. The protagonist potters about the countryside and bumps into various sages, eccentrics and wiseacres. Some are actors. Some play versions of themselves. A teenager discusses his ambitions to become a doctor. The proprietor of a small museum fondly remembers the days before electricity. All the while, Richard Kendrick’s camera sits back at a respectful distance.
There are a few outbreaks of quiet baloney, but, for the most part, the contributors eloquently, sometimes accidentally argue for the importance of place. Collins underscores that conversation by including carefully chosen archive footage of the locale during far off, busier times. There’s less human noise about now. There is more silence.
Collins’s earlier works include an acclaimed documentary on Abbas Kiarostami, and Silence features frequent echoes of that stubborn Iranian film-maker. There is the same sense of ambling towards an elusive meaning. There is a similar affection for the more inaccessible, less hectic corners of the country.
In Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, a film-maker stomps about a quiet village trying to establish a connection on his mobile. Eoghan doesn’t bother with such frivolities. If anything, Silence seems set in an even more remote, even more pre-modern universe than Kiarostami’s folk dramas.
It would be dishonest to suggest that Silence does not occasionally give in to longeurs. Always attractive, always committed, the film sometimes struggles to justify its own rigorous reserve. The protagonist – as much a passive receiver as is his digital recorder – is so obtuse that you feel the urge to give him the odd vigorous shake.
Mind you, when Collins does allow in a little bit of old-fashioned, classical film-making, the effect is slightly jarring. The imposition on the soundtrack of of Fairport Convention’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes? – though still gorgeous after nearly half a century – seems just a tad sentimental and more than a little literal minded.
All of which just reaffirms what a perverse, impressively odd piece of work this is. It should be seen and it should be seen in the cinema. You won’t hear the silences properly at home.