The Lost Voice of Reason

in 56th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Steven Yates

This year’s festival totaled some 118 feature-length and 62 short films from 53 countries, as well as special screenings and tributes. The International Competition was comprised of 15 films and its strong program was evident in that many of these films had already won prizes, not least Fipresci awards, like the Slovak film Eva Nova which won in Toronto, while Land and Shade (La Tierra Y La Sombra), Colombia-France-The Netherlands-Chile-Brazil), has just won the critics’ prize in Bratislava. From Mexico, Gabriel Ripstein’s 600 Miles (starring Tim Roth) screened in the Panorama section of the Berlinale this year and won the award for Best First Feature. For our jury in Thessaloniki, though, it came down to three or four films that were bona fide contenders (regardless of previous awards), with two rounds of voting to decide the eventual winner, Silent by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Gkikapeppas.

Tagline: “Do you ever have your own voice away from home?”

Director and producer Gkikapeppas won the Fipresci award at Thessaloniki in 2011 for his first film The City of Children and repeats the feat here with Silent, his follow-up. However, that is where the comparisons end as these are two very different films. This time it is about a dysfunctional family, a successful intellectual and artistic family, and what happens when one of them implodes under great strain just prior to a promising career. The powerful story tells of a young, talented soprano who mysteriously and involuntarily loses her voice during her final courses in aria, in Poland. The unwitting catalyst for this is her voice coach who, despite the best intentions, suffocates the will of the young woman and penetrates a deep crisis into her family. The cracks open and the victim, Dido (played by Kika Georgiou), the youngest of two daughters, finds herself helpless and without sympathy.

“Hey little bird, fly away home. Your house is on fire, your children are alone.”

So, the bird returns to the nest. Dido returns to Athens, hides in the empty old family house and attempts to come to some understanding of her condition, in the very place where it undoubtedly had its beginnings. First the ‘boyfriend’ appears on the scene, unsympathetic and accusing her of selfishness. Next, the older sister confesses her jealousy going back to childhood and how she resented playing second fiddle to her talented younger sibling. However, a bonding and resolution of sorts is made. Then mother and father appear on the scene. Both seem disparate and self-involved and the family erupts, refuting any empathy with the muted daughter and directing her in unsympathetic monologues. The mother seems more embarrassed than concerned, suspecting that her daughter’s behavior is deliberate. Doctors and psychologists are unable to help or understand the sudden withdrawal, whether her condition is pretense, a protest, or for real. The trauma candidly exposes the can of worms in a family that should have tripped up much earlier.

Watching Silent is also an involuntarily uncomfortable experience. Why exactly does someone suddenly lose their voice? Here we are drawn into the peripheral realms of inter-related withdrawal synonyms: abstinence, self-denial, temperance, sobriety, continence and related psychological choices. However, all of these don’t touch the nerve or help understand what has happened to the young soprano, which makes Silent both originally compelling yet likewise frustratingly enigmatic. Most importantly, we learn that the preservation of a free voice seems to be more vital than the capability of speech itself.

Disorder in middle-class family life in the developed world makes for a compelling scenario in films. Festen (Dir: Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 1998) and Together (Dir: Lukas Moodysson, Sweden, 2000) were just two among various takes on the subject. However, a film more recent in the memory and parallel to Silent was My Skinny Sister (Min lilla syster), a film which played in the Generation section of this year’s Berlinale and also played in the Youth section here. It’s easy to compare and contrast both films. Stella is a likeable overweight young teenager who admires her older sister Katja, a dedicated figure skater who receives most of her parents’ attention. But Stella discovers her sister is suffering from a severe eating disorder that could kill her. Stella initially agrees to withhold the information from their parents but Katja’s illness slowly drives the family to the brink of despair. The major difference between the two films is that the love and strength in Katja’s family is what helps her. In Silent, love is dormant.

Yorgos Gkikapeppas successfully builds up the tension and claustrophobia to make us better understand the inner psychosis and suffocation of Dido. Tight close-up shots and schizophrenic camera movement keep tandem with the chaos, then at other times the camera is very still, withdrawn. Much of the film is shot indoors, in bare rooms, almost like prisons. The film could easily be a play for theatre and it is inconspicuous that the budget must have been modest as it matters very little. The denouement is unresolved; it is for us to decide what happens next, regardless of whether we are in alignment with the director’s intentions.

Steven Yates