The Sound of Silence

in 14th Transilvania International Film Festival, Cluj-Napoca

by Tonci Valentic

We all know the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s a proverb which makes sense in relation to cinema: film is primarily a visual art, and its artistic value is inevitably based on the harmonious interplay between picture and sound, atmosphere and dialogue, narration and the expressive quality of scenes.

However, what about movies which are dialogue-free? In this case I don’t mean silent films, but contemporary features which use only non-verbal sounds or music in shaping the story and articulating narration. In these films, cinematic expression is achieved through powerful imagery and visual aesthetics. 

For this reason, the section called “Words Are Very Unnecessary” at the Transilvania Film Festival is worth mentioning. It is a courageous, challenging experiment: a program consisting entirely of wordless films. In this article I will focus on two films which proved that words can be “very unnecessary”, to paraphrase Depeche Mode’s famous song “Enjoy the Silence”. My article takes its title from another classic piece of 20th century music: Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”. I believe this title perfectly describes the aspirations and desires of the filmmakers in this section.

First of all, we must ask: how does silence manage to “speak” in a film? What visual and performative components need to be in place so that a film can get by without speech? If these elements are not properly controlled, the film can easily become an indulgent artwork or a dreadful pseudo-documentary. Therefore an experienced director and a thoroughly developed script are crucial. I will focus on two wordless films which managed to strongly affect viewers, both emotionally and rationally.

Alexander Kott’s Test (Ispytanie) tells the simple story of a father and daughter living in the vast steppe in Kazakhstan. They live as their ancestors did centuries ago – nothing disturbs this eternal order. Every day the father goes out to work while the daughter stays in the house. But something does change: two men fall in love with the daughter, and she must make a decision. However, by the end, external forces intervene, not only foiling the two lovers, but destroying the world these people have inhabited.

Although Test is not without flaws (the editing is not on the same level as the film’s other elements, there is a lack of narrative consistency, and some scenes clearly require dialogue), it is a very good film. Its strengths are powerful imagery, strong poetic visuals, pictorial precision, expressive camera movements, extraordinary music, and a story with a clearly articulated social message. The contrast between incredible visual beauty and social criticism reaches a climax at the end of the film, when we finally understand the meaning of the title: everything disappears in a nuclear explosion. As Kott has said, “This is a story about the first nuclear bomb test conducted in Semipalatinsk in 1949. No-one at the time imagined where this could lead: the calculations were rough, and no-one really knew anything about radiation. They tested the bomb – and they tested the people. [For these people] every day is the same, and they are a part of nature. Nothing can change this eternal order. But then one day something on the far horizon, a fire monster, comes from under the ground and draws the clouds apart.” Kott manages to produce a movie where the silence of the steppe is clearly “audible” – it is the sound of eternal order.

George Ovashvili’s Corn Island (Simindis kundzuli) tells the similarly simple story of a 70-year-old peasant and his daughter who cultivate the ground on a small island in the middle of the river. The farmers try to make the best of nature, since these islands are the only fertile ground in an otherwise barren country. The problem is that these tiny islands could be destroyed by one flood – or they could stay intact for years to come. Like Test, this movie achieves a symbolic timelessness; with almost no dialogue, the director dramatizes the unfathomable bond between man and nature. Captivating imagery is complemented by the intense expressions of the protagonists. Things become more serious when a wounded man suddenly arrives on the island.

As in Kott’s film, there is noteworthy social and political content, but Ovashvili cleverly avoids slipping into obvious metaphor. The river forms a natural border dividing Georgia and Abkhazia, and the island is basically a “no man’s land” between the two rival sides. The entire film takes place in the middle of the river, on a little island created by the spring floods. However, this does not mean claustrophobia – just the opposite. The viewer experiences a sense of eternity, of breathtaking landscapes opening up limitless space, so that the film becomes a universal human story told in a universal environment. The narration is predominantly visual, and dialogue is minimal: only a few sentences. The film’s sequences follow a well-balanced rhythm; the visual composition is exquisite, thanks to the excellence of cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi. The island is basically the film’s main character. Therefore, words really are unnecessary, since the film’s magic is the result of visual narration and intense acting. A movie like Corn Island shows us why we are still so fascinated by the cinematic experience.

Edited by Lesley Chow