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Cirque désolé


Silent Sonata (2014)

This is a movie of such strangeness that it is surprising it was able to secure financing and, subsequently, distribution. It is a testament to the backers of the Slovenian-Irish-Swedish-Finnish co-production that financiers were willing to risk backing such an unusual and demanding project. It is a pity that the movie itself does not quite stand up to its concept.

A family lives on a remote farm. One morning the mother (Marjuta Slamič) does not return; the father (Leon Lučev) finds her body on the edge of the property. It appears the marauding gangs of soldiers in the area have shot her. The next night, headlights appear. The father sends his children (Luna Zimič Mijovič and Devi Bragalini) to hide in the cellar while he waits with his gun. But the new arrivals mean no harm; they are a traveling circus, the ringleader (René Bazinet) of which is very ill. Over the next few days it becomes apparent how much the different groups of people need each other.

The strangeness begins with the concept but then is magnified when you realize that the entire film will take place without dialogue. There is plenty of noise, of course: the creak of a swing, the puff of a fire-breather (David Boelee), explosions from shots fired by a tank or an airplane. There is also music, either from a radio in the family’s house or in the circus tent. But there is no language, no commentary. We must ascertain people’s thoughts only through their actions and their expressions.

This is easier than it would seem, but the great trouble is that so many of the actions as shown are really quite weird. When the daughter and the youngest member of the circus (Yannick Martens) go for a romantic bike ride on a beach, what they do when they discover a group of charred corpses is so bizarre as to be almost unexplainable. At one point a tank threatens the caravan, only to be greeted by the strongman (Viatcheslav Volkov) throwing shapes and the fire-breather setting his farts alight. There is a misjudged bit of magical realism with the mother and the only child in the caravan (Enej Grom). And the romance between the fire-breather and the acrobat (Zhang Xiaoxue) is also so creepy and truncated as to be completely ridiculous.

The difficulty with the film is that director Janez Burger has chosen to tell a dark and alienating story in a dark and alienating way. The combination of style and substance makes the viewer recoil. Dialogue-free movies can work very well, but ones like “Belleville Rendez-vous/The Triplets of Belleville” or the Mr. Bean shorts work because they have a lighter heart, drawing the audience into the lack of words as an act of goodwill and cheer. Here the lack of words is for no happy reason.

Another great shame is that the final third of the film feels like a retread of “Wings of Desire,” a significantly better movie about an aerialist winning the heart of a lonely and grieving man. Perhaps if “Silent Sonata” had been told with dialogue, it would have felt less upsetting and less strange, making the audience happier to meet the movie halfway.


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