This is the best film set in Tajikistan that Judge Joe Armenio has seen this week.
Our review of A Film Trilogy By Ingmar Bergman: Criterion Collection, published October 27th, 2003, is also available.
"You'll follow a pretty voice and get lost."
Not to be confused with Ingmar Bergman's The Silence (1963), which is available as a Criterion DVD, this is one of two films by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf recently released by New Yorker; the other is A Moment of Innocence (1996). Makhmalbaf was born in 1957 in Tehran, and as a teenager became a radical anti-Shah fundamentalist; in 1974, he stabbed a policeman, an event which forms the basis of the plot of A Moment of Innocence, and spent five (apparently horrific) years in prison. He was released with the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and set about making films. I've only seen one of his early works, The Peddler (1987), which is a striking but occasionally crude and shrill mix of Hollywood forms and neorealist social criticism. It's clear from this work, however, that Makhmalbaf had ditched his teenage dogmatism for a broader humanism. By the time of A Moment of Innocence, his movies had achieved a calm, compassionate grandeur. The Silence was his next film; it's not quite a masterpiece like A Moment of Innocence, but it's still clearly the work of a world-class director.
The Silence is set among the poor in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, where 10-year-old Khorshid (Tahmineh Normatova), who is blind, lives with his mother; his father has long since fled to Russia in pursuit of his fortune. Khorshid compensates for his blindness by cultivating a precise sense of hearing, and supports his mother by tuning instruments in a music shop. He has to take the bus to his job, and is accompanied by a friend, a slightly older girl named Naderah (Naderah Abdelahyeva). He often gets lost on the way to work, enchanted by sounds: the voices of girls chatting on the bus, bees buzzing, the tunes of street musicians. Khorshid's mother informs him that they are about to be evicted, but he is in danger of losing his job for his perceived flightiness; his struggles to keep working and avoid eviction form the rather thin narrative, which Makhmalbaf clearly considers less important than his images.
Still, however, the narrative is one reason why this film never quite reaches the exalted heights of A Moment of Innocence. Iranian filmmakers are strictly censored when it comes to portraying adult relationships, so they've often bypassed the whole issue by using children as protagonists. The journeying child, in particular, is perhaps the hoariest staple of Iranian film (Abbas Kiarostami's Where is the Friend's Home is the most successful example; Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon is the most famous). By the late nineties, many critics had begun to find Iranian films cloying and repetitious, and The Silence doesn't exactly help that particular cause. A plot involving a little blind boy and his adorable companion struggling to fend off eviction is pretty trite and precious; Makhmalbaf, of course, is far too refined a filmmaker to accentuate the cornier elements of this narrative, but it remains a lighter, less strikingly original film than he is capable of.
I tend to take a lot of notes as I screen films for review, mostly because I have a bad memory for plot details. My notes for The Silence, however, capture mostly pure image and sound: "roar of the bus, music," "children playing instruments," "rain," "river," "fields." The Silence is an ironic title, since Khorshid is so sensitive to any sound that he has to plug his ears to avoid being distracted. He hears the first four notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony everywhere: in his landlord's knock, in the banging of the apprentices at the blacksmith's shop. The film may as well be called The Darkness, since much of its poignance comes from the sumptuousness of its images, combined with the viewer's knowledge that Khorshid can't see them (Makhmalbaf, thankfully, keeps this theme implicit; we get no speeches about the difficulties of blindness). The visuals are rich, drunk on color; Makhmalbaf lingers on images of the river by which Khorshid lives, or the cotton fields which surround him, in a way which suggests not just an appreciation of picture-postcard beauty, but a joy in the very act of seeing.
Beethoven's 5th Symphony is the most important running musical theme, and features in the film's climax, in which Khorshid conducts an impromptu orchestra. The scene is a celebration of the everyday music of the city, evocative of both triumphant beauty and menacing fate, and also an interesting celebration of the West in a film that spends much of its time focused on local folk culture. In A Moment of Innocence, there's a wonderful scene in which a cranky old tailor grows expansive when he learns that his customers are in the movie business, delivering a long speech about his favorite Hollywood films. The Silence, too, explores the ways in which culture, that which is imported from Europe and America as well as folk culture, can serve as a balm to poor people, both as escape and a means of broadening one's horizons. This serves as a sort of counterpoint to his suggestion that poverty in the boondocks has been made worse by globalization (Khorshid's family, broken by the money-driven flight of his father to Russia, is an example).
As with New Yorker's release of A Moment of Innocence, there are no extras on the DVD. The booklet contains an essay by New York Press critic Armond White, who celebrates Makhmalbaf as the "more romantic and accessible and plangent of the Iranian masters." New Yorker's transfer is 1.78:1 anamorphic and looks very good; black levels are solid and the color palette is rich. The 2.0 Stereo mix does a good job of conveying Makhmalbaf's multi-layered soundtrack.
The last feature that Makhmalbaf directed was 2001's Kandahar, which continued his trend of setting films in remote areas (Afghanistan, this time) and enjoyed some popularity in the United States among audiences eager to catch a glimpse of life in the country on which we had recently declared war. Since then he's made a 45-minute documentary, The Afghan Alphabet, and has worked primarily as a producer, writer, and impresario. Much of his recent work has focused on the role of women both in Iranian film and Iranian society as a whole; he co-wrote the screenplay for Marzieh Meshkini's The Day I Became a Woman and produced his daughter Samira Makhmalbaf's At Five in the Afternoon. He remains a major figure in world film, and these New Yorker DVDs are an excellent way to get to know him.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Booklet Essay by Armond White
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