sun 23/06/2024

Silent Sonata | reviews, news & interviews

Silent Sonata

Silent Sonata

Mute Slovenian circus magic set against war background intrigues

Send in the clowns: circus spirit confronts military might

The forces of death and life come up against each other in the strange, somehow impressive Slovenian war drama Silent Sonata. I say “Slovenian” only because director Janez Burger hails from there, and that’s where some of the filming took place (the rest was in Ireland, which was the major, but not the only European co-producer of the film), but the cast and crew are markedly international.

And though we can see it’s a war situation loosely based on the former Yugoslavia, there’s no hint at what corner of that conflict it’s refering to.

There’s a risk with such projects that the result becomes “Europudding”, losing identity, as well as language, by trying to combine many diverse elements. Burger certainly gets round the language issue with originality – by doing away with text altogether. Silent Sonata is wordless, making its impact through images (with stunning widescreen cinematography from Czech lenser Diviš Marek), sound, music and gesture; it's as if the faces of the actors are speaking, of ferocity and grief, humour and endurance.

Possibly they’ve strayed over the cinematic border from Fellini-land

Which also means that none of the characters have names. The central figure, the father (Leon Lučev) lives with his family in an an isolated, dilapidated dwelling in the steppe-like wilderness, whose beauty nevertheless betrays danger: the film’s very first incident is the off-screen murder of his wife (we see nothing of how this happens, only the husband finding her dead body). The rumbling of transport in the distance as a column of vehicles approaches sends him rushing to conceal his children, an elder girl and a boy, in the cellar, and taking up an ancient shotgun to defend his home.

But, rather than any hostile paramilitary grouping, it turns out to be a travelling circus, the "Circus Fantasticus" (the film's title at home in Slovenia), which gradually assimilates itself peacefully into the family’s existence. It’s never clear quite how they come to be there, where they’ve come from (possibly they’ve strayed over the cinematic border from Fellini-land), and we just have to accept that as a part of a more general Balkan magic realism. Given that no one speaks, there’s no room for explanation (and this is very much contempo silent movie-making, with none of the intertitles of recent tributes to the genre).

The broad message is that life goes on, that tricks and clowning in the ring are an assertion of life, in a context of death; it's qualified by the fact that the circus patriarch (Rene Bazinet, himself a performer and teacher with Cirque du Soleil: most of the other cast also have circus backgrounds) is himself dying. And there is real risk out there, as when a single tank rumbles over the horizon, to be farcically engaged with the matador-like antics of the troupe’s fire-breather (main picture); the comedy that comes when the tank responds with its own show-off pirouettes is very quickly dissipated when a warplane screams over, and blows it to smithereens, as the absurd very quickly turns to horror. But then it’s back to the magic of the big top for a splendid final riff on the sheer life-affirming power of performance (image above).

There’s not really a story as such, rather a succession of incidents (including the growing friendship between the daughter and one of the circus lads, as they take an excursion to a nearby beach (image above), again encountering horror there, in the form of washed-up corpses) and images. Later scenes certainly seem driven by image, in a way that nods to the mythopoetry of the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky (lead actor Lučev actually looks something of a dead ringer for the middle-period Tarkovsky). Silent Sonata does keep the attention, and at 75 minutes doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s certainly entrancing, although on returning to it you may wonder about its originality.

Overleaf, watch the trailer for Silent Sonata


Though we can see it’s a war situation loosely based on the former Yugoslavia, there’s no hint at what corner of that conflict it’s refering to


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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