Today: May 22, 2024


One of the great tragedies of 21st Century culture is the fact that the ‘Cinematic Experience’ is actually little more than a means of badgering people into paying for bigger screens, higher resolutions and louder sound-systems. Sure… UltraHD and 3D may have their place in a mature cultural ecosystem but not all cinematic experiences involve nailing audiences to the wall with kinetic special effects and percussive soundscapes. Some cinematic experiences are quiet, contemplative and even spiritual. Poised somewhere between documentary and road movie, Pat Collins’ is about a man returning home to Ireland and finding something in the silence.

Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride plays a sound-recordist who has just ended a long-term relationship with a German woman. Bereft and visibly shaken, he returns home to Donegal and attempts to get away from it all by finding and recording a place untainted by man-made noises. After much traipsing about the (beautiful) Irish countryside, the recordist finds a completely deserted place only for the silence to be shattered by a strange man who invites him home for dinner. Over dinner, the man asks about the recordist’s background and so transports him back to childhood when early recordings captured the sound of howling wind as well as voices raised in song. This memory of people singing rekindles the recordist’s sense of connection to the land and so sets him on a voyage back to his childhood home where he encounters not just silence but a silence filled with memory and meaning.

Though pleasantly written and competently told, the plot of Silence is not exactly central to the experience of watching the film. Like many art house directors, Collins is less interested in having his audience be passively entertained than he is in presenting them with a combination of sounds, images and silences that will encourage them to think for themselves. Indeed, the combination of beautiful countryside and nature sounds not only relaxes the audience, it also places them in a similar situation as the film’s protagonist: Confronted by beauty and silence, we cannot help but think about what it all means.

The film’s central idea is that our lives are filled with frivolous nonsense that serves only to disconnect us from the world. Those (like the sound-recordist) who choose to rid themselves of this frivolous nonsense are confronted by a deafening silence. This is the deeper silence alluded to throughout the film… a silence so deep that it encourages you to fill it with thoughts and feelings about who you are and where you have been. According to the film, the thoughts and feelings you choose to project into the silence are what really matters.

This attempt to create a cinematic experience founded on reflection rather than entertainment is deeply reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker where similar combinations of beautiful images, peaceful sounds and ambiguous imagery served to emulate a spiritual experience. Unfortunately, this is precisely where Silence falls down as while Tarkovsky perfectly captures the combination of profound understanding and acute alienation that accompanies life-changing experiences, Collins is rather unclear on what it is that his protagonist actually finds at the end of his journey: Is it a sense of community? Is it the understanding that he should never have left his home? All we see is a wind-swept derelict.

The problem here is that of a failure to deliver: Collins presents his film as a sort of spiritual journey and frequently returns to this idea of a deeper silence and the truths it might contain. By failing to end the film on a note of self-discovery of psychological transformation, Collins not only deprives his audience of dramatic resolution, he also raises the possibility that they – like the sound-recordist – might very well have been wasting their time by choosing to follow the journey described in the film. It is one thing to argue against the possibility of gaining real personal insight but had Collins intended to make this point then he should have argued his corner rather than banging on and on about deeper silences and then failing to deliver. The most frustrating thing about this lack of ending is that while Silence may lack the sense of interiority that would have made it a truly great film, the documentaries included on the disc suggest that the islands of the coast of Donegal are filled with precisely the sense of history and community that the recordist should have found in that derelict house.

Despite some issues of trust, Silence identifies Pat Collins as a major Irish filmmaking talent. This is not only a beautiful and restive film, it also strives towards the kind of cinematic experience that is all too often forgotten in an age of greater resolutions and bigger explosions.

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