Succumb to the sound of Silence in this gorgeous tale of a wandering recordist returning to his cultural roots.
Even silent movies aren’t really silent — you wouldn’t watch one on mute, would you? At least as much as dramatic underlining, the score is there to prevent crinkly candy wrappers and crunchy popcorn from puncturing the aesthetic experience. You’ve heard of a headphone album; well, Pat Collins' Silence is a headphone movie. Eoghan (Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride) is a Berlin-based sound recordist who returns to his native Ireland to record the places where people aren’t.
In the best scenes of this dreamily paced, sparsely populated film, we share his reveries thanks to the delicately mixed wild soundtrack, entering into an immersive yet tenuous state of concentration as we trace direction and distance.
Even our early glimpse of Eoghan’s urban environment seems unreally gentle: standing in the street, pointing a boom mic at the passing trolleys, he’s swaddled in the reverb of public transit, like Tadanobu Asano recording Tokyo’s trains in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s deeply calming Café Lumiere. But still: "It’s more quiet I’m after," he says at one point, like a city-dweller on holiday in search of some ultimate peace.
This proves elusive, which may be the point. It’s not just that his forest idylls are interrupted by the echo of distant construction or that the ambient soundtrack which envelops his long drives is sometimes disjunctively switched off. Even the silence of the grave is posited as something less than absolute.
Two points of reference here are James Benning's films comprised of durational, master-shot landscape photography, and, yes, John Cage’s '4'33"', both of which teach that art never offers itself as a void. Inevitably, we the audience fill it in ourselves. And Silence is at times almost chatty in its own muffled fashion. In conversations with writers or curators of unvisited museums of vanished rural life, Eoghan ruminates on paradoxes of rootedness and ephemerality. He swaps sepia-toned anecdotes.
It emerges that Eoghan’s retreat into ever further-flung parts of Ireland is actually a return to his island birthplace off the coast of County Donegal where the wind whistles through the broken windows of his childhood home. Eoghan, with his wettish eyes and introverted beard, is the protagonist of an unlikely quest narrative: a quest to recover an awareness of who is with you when you’re alone. Interspersed throughout his journey are archival clips of early 20th-century Irish village life; songs by Sandy Denny and Rory Gallagher; and poetry and traditional Gaelic song, recited by characters both present on-screen and present only in memory (but creeping up in the mix as Eoghan gets closer to their, and his, source).
For brief passages in Silence, Eoghan simply sets up his sound rig — and Collins sets up his camera — in a field and walks away. In Terrence Malick’s films, shots of windblown grass with a soundtrack of birdsong induce a communion with some Emersonian Over-soul. Similarly, the Irish landscape in Silence comes to feel populated by amiable, melancholy spirits of a very faintly audible past.
This drama sees a sound techie record places free of human presence around the Irish countryside. We’re not kidding with this number.
Add or subtract according to how much you enjoy your own thoughts.
The best cinematic portrayal of a man recording silence since that scene in 24 Hour Party People.