Silence is an intriguing film placed somewhere between documentary and fiction. The debut feature of filmmaker Pat Collins can most accurately be described as film art and may, therefore, not be to everyone’s taste. Collins has opted to create a calm, meditative film that coolly unfolds as its protagonist and audience are forced to reflect on such topics as time, loss and, of course, silence.
The film tells the story of Eoghan, (played by co-writer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride), a sound engineer who leaves Germany to carry out a job in his native Ireland. His task is to record the sounds in places that are free from man-made noise. The mission is more difficult than anticipated as Eoghan encounters interruptions from the artificial, human world continually. These intrusions range from industrial noise to sounds from intrigued natives, who are curious as to what Eoghan may be doing. Limited though these encounters with locals are, they draw a parallel with the audience’s experiences. Each meeting begins with confusion towards Eoghan’s mission and then neatly progresses onto the local people’s personal introspections, which has been drawn out by the conversation about silence. One particularly poignant silence centres on an inhabitant’s belief that there is nothing wrong with standing still in one spot, only for that very same person to quietly reflect differently on this decision shortly afterwards. Silent contemplation occurs frequently throughout Eoghan’s journey, as his task forces each person with whom the sound engineer converses to reconsider their own decisions.
While Collins wished to portray Eoghan in the mode of an Irish folklore collector gathering stories, this important process of documenting is almost overshadowed by the stunning visuals of Ireland’s most remote areas. Cinematographer Richard Kendrick has contributed magnificently to Collins’ meditative aims by expertly capturing the varying landscapes visited by Eoghan. Be it dense woodland, a stormy coast or the interior of a rundown building, each shot is lovingly crafted to harmonise with the natural sounds accompanying the scene. Such care highlights, of course, the other triumph of Silence: the work of the sound department. While it may seem trivial to record the sounds of nature, considerable skill is evident here. During some of Eoghan’s reflective moments, we hear the recording of a woman singing which haunts its listeners both on and off screen. We learn that the track is actually a recording sung by the actor’s mother in the 1960’s, a small fact that dramatically increases the emotional pitch of the scene. Equally impressive is the scene of a car journey as the sound switches from music to pure mechanical murmurs, all carried out in sync with Eoghan turning his radio off. Finally, the slow fade up of a distant rock-breaking machine, which has intruded on the film’s first attempt to capture silence, is apparent as Eoghan himself becomes aware of the noise. These are all tried and tested methods of sound editing, but employed subtly to produce a grander effect.
If Collins wished for a sense of transience to be the centre of Silence, a much stronger motif of intrusion is evident. Interruptions occur predominantly during Eoghan’s recording attempts, but extend beyond this, and beyond the fourth wall into the audience. A trace of voyeurism haunts as the ambitious attempt to reach places devoid of man-made sound becomes one of self-discovery for Eoghan, forcing him to confront suppressed emotions linked to the older generation, presumably his parents, whom he left behind many years ago.
At an hour and a half long, some might find Silence overlong given its unique style and subject matter, a judgement I could certainly understand. Dialogue is sparse and much of the film is left, deliberately, open to audience interpretation. Ultimately, though, this is a confident and striking work and, if you are able to come to terms with the unorthodox approach, then you will be treated to a film that is visually stunning and surprisingly thought-provoking.