A Silence Full of Emotion

in 21st European Movie Festival, Lecce

by Nikolaos Giakoumelos

The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the changes the cinema was already undergoing, due to the surfacing of new technologies and new ways of watching films. The idea of the dark room, the sense of silence and belonging that cinema could offer, is in decline – remote watching and streaming seems to be a new, yet more isolating, way of watching.

There are many complications to that effect, which is ongoing. The whole industry is changing, yet into what is still unclear. However, one thing that is clear, even now, is that the changes favor the stronger players in the field. Streaming services or large companies with enough capital to use in such investments have a clear head start to that new age. And the movies we see, produced mainly with streaming as the focus, are of a much more popular culture appeal.

Where in that context do the (usually without help and capital) European creators stand? In the era of isolation, how can we access their work, which, despite the current situation, boosts a sense of belonging and sentimental communication? The festivals are one way, and, without the screening rooms, the most effective one.

Festivals, such as the 2020 Lecce European Film Festival, allow the opportunity to come close to the vibrant and wholeheartedly alive world of European filmmakers, who, despite the difficulties, still have a close connection to the cultural and social changes many of us face in our daily lives.

Films like Scandinavian Silence (Skandinaavia Vaikus, 2019), written and directed by young Estonian Martti Helde, is a prime example. With its beautiful black-and-white photography, its powerful acting, and the engaging themes of difficulty in expression, confession of feelings in silent comprehension, and complex familial relationships, this Estonian-French-Belgian co-production becomes an experience worth having.

The themes of Scandinavian Silence are not easy. Helde draws influence from Bergman in his dialogue, Tarkovsky in his cinematography, and Kurosawa in his Rashomon-like format. By mixing these three, Helde gives his characters a cruel social stage and a vibrant cold nature, but a necessary and forgiving audience for a much-needed confession. The brother and sister who drive though the frozen landscape and meet even colder people around them, need this silent space in order to express, uninterrupted, their feelings of remorse, their thoughts and betrayed dreams about their cruel environment and family. They have only each other, but no way to express that love.

So Helde provides that space in a confronting silence. In there, the siblings have their own segments, their own confessions. The brother talks about prison, the isolation, the pain, and the remorse of not helping his sister, whom their father had molested in the past. He reminisces about other prisoners, while aerial shots of mountains in a wondrous winter light carry his voice to the viewer. He essentially communes with the surrounding nature, trying to connect both with it and with his sister. In this part, special praise should be given to cinematographers Erik Pollumaa and Sten-Johan Lill.

In the second act, time rewinds and now the brother is silent, while the sister talks about the stigma of being a sexual abuse survivor, the guilt and shame of it. How she has changed because of it.

In the third act, time rewinds again but now the silence is unchallenged. Ηοwever, through a series of motions and glances, the viewer gets the sense that this silence is far from empty. Instead of a lack of communication, it signifies a safe space for the two protagonists to co-exist peacefully, to heal together. Far from judgment, but not from the repercussions of their actions. Helde is unsure of how to give off that effect, so the movie’s ending is uncharacteristic of its whole progression up to that point. It falls flat, trying to engage in a chase where up until then it focused more on human drama. This awkward ending does not negate the emotional depth of the film. It remains a work of staggering creative prowess.

The three-part puzzle Helde has made is full of subtle beauty, the kind that European cinema could offer, but it needs help to reach the audience. Help through festivals and (digital) distribution, until the cinemas return, in one form or another.

Nikolaos Giakoumelos
Edited by Robert Horton