The cinematic new kid on the block – the hybrid documentary – is apparently here to stay, and not just a momentary quirk or aberration, while expanding the film medium visually and technically. Just as Brian De Palma and Lynn Hershman-Leeson demonstrated so skillfully and inventively last year, with Redacted and Strange Culture respectively, as they delved topically, and ironically, into war and domestic terrorism.
The hybrid documentary also challenges the boundaries of how we see, feel, absorb, digest and make sense of the world around us. And Spanish filmmaker Pere Portabella’s The Silence Before Bach is certainly no exception. While the veteran surrealist anti-Franco screenwriter and director – who produced Luis Bunuel’s screen classic Viridiana – challenges and perhaps confounds us with the film’s title, the silence in this case may refer not only to the composer’s revolutionary musical inception, but also to the far from insignificant silence preceding inspiration. And it is the very backdrop of that passive reflection prior to creative conception, not just in historical time but also organic to musical formulation and the space between sounds, that likewise fascinates the filmmaker, both musically and cinematically, in the determined pauses surrounding concepts and images.
Portabella sets the stage for this remarkable creative composition in its own right, as a piano glides by itself without beneift of human participation, through a series of empty rooms. Later, a blind albino piano tuner enters with a seeing eye dog and proceeds to explore the keyboard, as the canine’s ears flutter rhythmically in response to sounds. The radically conceived opening perspective juxtaposing the absence of human energy and color with a keen sense of musical tapestry, establishes the unique pleasures of the many astonishing, self-consciously imaginative and meditative, when not eccentric or even comical momentum to follow throughout.
Though some images presented are simply disconnected or distracting, such as the filmmaker’s overly preoccupied obsession with a nude female musician not quite so casually, gratuitously indulging in her habitual daily showering and grooming routines, many others lift the film whimsically and lyrically beyond their mundane backdrops. Including long distance truckers enamored of Bach, who reminisce about playing his chamber pieces at home with the family, or engage in impromptu harmonica fugues on the road; period vignettes featuring introspective portrayals of Bach and Mendelssohn, and the discovery of Bach’s blood-soaked music sheets as wrapping for the purchase of brains from freshly slaughtered animals at the local butcher back then; a present day subway car full of cellists gathered silently to play Bach in unison; and, most poignantly, a piano that tragically falls through space into an ocean and drowns.
And perhaps there’s a solemn reflection here around memory and loss. This, as the film swings back through history with its own delicate meshing of enchantment and mystery, contemplating a Europe whether before Bach or in our own time “of emptiness with no resonance.” The Silence before Bach, a study in sound that both transcends and illuminates a complexity of ideas.
A Films 59 Production
In Spanish. Catalan and German with English subtitles.
The Silence Before Bach opens at the Film Forum in NYC on January 30th. More information is online at:
FilmForum.org and PerePortabella.com.