14 September 2013

The Deafening Roar of Berman's The Silence

I grew up among Finns. I remember some of the women who ranged in age from their late twenties to early forties. They had what I later came to consider an innocuous beauty. They were tall blonde perfectly clean looking women with light tans. These were healthy women with a serious nature but a ready smile. Good drinkers decent cooks and undoubtedly skilled lovers. But even as a child I sensed a certain vacuity. I could never figure out what they were about or if they had any vision or original ideas. There was something cookie cutter about them and even as I grew into and beyond adolescence they did nothing much to stir my loins. They were like an army of aunts to be appreciated and respected.

The co-stars of Ingmar Bergman's The Silence (1963) Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom are physical prototypes of these women. The same firm and handsome women smart and coy but oddly uninteresting. Until that is we see them in private.

What I failed to realize as a lad was that these Finnish women were putting on a culturally imbedded public performance bereft of emotion. All sleek lines and unmannered cordiality. The truth was that at home either alone or with husbands or lovers they let their hair down. Literally and figuratively.

Thulin and Lindblom are characters whose hair is down. Way down. There are still no over the top theatrics. There is no flamboyance. That would be contrary to their natures. But we see the older sister Ester (Thulin) dying -- really the ultimate performance of one's life. And we see younger sister   Anna (Lindblom) seducing a stranger. There ya go.

We also meet Anna's Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom) a very nordic if bookish looking lad of about nine. He is a toy-pistol-toting wanderer full of love and curiosity. Most of his meandering is in the large seemingly vacant hotel which provides the setting for most of The Silence. Besides our three central characters we meet an elderly porter who speaks not a word of Swedish -- nor do the visitors speak whatever the deuce his language is supposed to be -- and a company of vaudevillian dwarves. Of course. If there are to be no other guests than surely there must be a company of dwarves and Spanish speakers at that.

Did I mention that whatever country they're in -- Eastern European? -- seems to be preparing for war? Tanks and a sense of impending conflict lurk just outside.

The weather is sultry. The film seems to sweat.

Death and sex and coldness in hot weather and the threat of war and young boy and and old man and the desperate groping grasping hungry nature of life interrupted by ennui and stultifying conditions and the anger and hatred and love and wonder that mix together into the brew of life that we sup on so earnestly or carelessly or thoughtlessly or purposefully. We do.

The sisters love/hate each other like siblings often to. Most of us really hate and love those close to us. We generally lean one way or the other but that pendulum can swing baby.

The Silence was made around the same time as Antonioni's trilogy of alienation. The Silence recalls some of the same sense of beautiful people leading empty lives making there way down corridors or streets and through bedrooms not sure what they're looking for or if indeed there is anything to be found. So alone whether with or without other people.

Anna is cruel to her dying sister. She makes sure Ester catches her "in the act" with the waiter. It's punishment. Anna tells her:  "You always harp on your principles and drone on about how important everything is. But it's all just hot air. You know why? I'll tell you. Everything centers around your ego. You can't live without feeling superior. That's the truth. Everything has to be desperately important and meaningful... and goodness knows what." Its not the only time a Bergman character has taken someone to task for being principled and supposedly superior. It is an oddly common criticism that perception that someone thinks well of themselves and holds to certain standards.

I didn't much like The Silence the first time I saw it. I gave it a second shot and quite liked it. After my third viewing I thought it revelatory. It's the type of film in which so much happens when seemingly nothing is happening on screen. And there is such richness in those odd or confusing moments. It has great spaces in which to explore and create and ponder. I like that in a film.

It has also served to give a new life and meaning to people who I so carelessly classified as empty vessels. I'd like to go back and revisit those Finnish women of my childhood get to know them and understand them and appreciate that there were roiling cauldrons of life boiling within them. They were multi layered people too.

It was never just me.

No comments: