I demand silence from a cinema audience. Within reason, of course. But I despise the rustling of sweet wrappers or crisp bags, don’t get me started on popcorn, and I think talking goes without saying: it’s the original sin. Bravo, then, for Silence. A languid, organic hybrid of drama and documentary from Harvest Films, its very title warns off the noisy and the disrespectful. Even the briefest synopsis supports your first impression: it’s about a sound recordist who returns to the northwest coast of Ireland to capture the sound of silence ie. that of nature unmolested by man-made noise. Do not enter the cinema if you think your stomach may rumble, or that you may nod off and snuffle. It’s quiet. Maybe too quiet.
Co-written and directed by Pat Collins (a documentarian by trade), Silence is not action-packed, nor punctuated with pithy quips. Eoghan MacGiolla Bhríde seems to play himself, an Irish soundman based in Berlin who gets a job that takes him back to the homeland, there to revisit his own past on the remote fishing island with the unfortunate name of Tory. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a hymn to the natural beauty of Ireland, in particular County Donegal, although it begins in County Galway, which happens to be the county I’m most familiar with, and which, to be childish, is my favourite. (I fell in love with Ireland the moment I stepped foot in it, and have returned there most years over the last 20 to sup from its fountain of weatherbeaten zen. This film called me back. I have never even been to Donegal, even though I have displaced relatives by marriage who hail from there and was speaking to one of them only two weeks ago.)
Silence stands in awe of the landscape, fumbling towards capturing and bottling it, and often places the quietly-spoken, unassuming Eoghan – a dead spit for John Lynch – tiny in the frame. Pat Collins, a native of Cork, understands the relative relationship between man and earth. It’s God’s country; we just live in it. Eoghan’s occasional conversations with locals – who I’m assuming are real people, perhaps nudged into covering certain topics by Eoghan, who co-wrote the film – reveal not just the protagonist’s poetic soul, along with his almost pained sense of longing, but also poetry in the most casual of observer. This may be a comment on the literary soul of Ireland, where everyone’s a taproom poet; even a pub landlord talks about the folk memory of starlings, and a beardy man who gives Eoghan a room for the night comments, “Whenever you sing a song, the first note comes out of silence.”
A bear-like local who approaches our man while he sets up his big furry mic somewhere in the wilds of Connemara, asks what he’s doing. Eoghan explains his brief: to escape man-made sound. “But you’re here?” he comments, not unreasonably. “I keep very quiet,” replies Eoghan, softly. It’s a lovely exchange that gets a quiet laugh (or it did when I saw Silence in a hushed matinee with nine other noiseless people yesterday), but also highlights the self-defeating nature of the quest. How does a man make anything without the man-made?
As he nears his heart of darkness – or at least, the house on Tory that he abandoned to the elements (“grass and nettles and briars”) 15 years ago – the conversations are no longer in English, but Gaelic, with subtitles. It’s easy on the ear, the Irish language, but you don’t hear it enough, and the subtitling has been artfully done with a real instinct for the way the Irish phrase things. A lovely chat between Eoghan and an old feller on Tory about the sound of the corncrakes is especially sympathetic: the birds are described as “being here in strength”, which I can hear the man saying.
With Irish folk songs cropping up regularly (an old reel-to-reel recording begins the film), there is a musicality to the natural soundtrack too, with much birdsong, and rustling of reeds against the Atlantic wind. Dialogue comes at far apart intervals, and the story, as much as it is, unfolds at its own pace, with no conventional “reveals” or resolution. Black and white archive footage adds depth – including a disturbing sequence in which men and women on a boat seem to deliberately drown a dog (this is old footage, so we can be sure no animals were harmed in the actual making of Silence) – and a longer scene in what must be a real museum on the island of Inishbofin is literally wallpapered with local history.
I could watch this film again, right now. It’s restful and evocative and lyrical and gives you room to think. I wondered if my mind might wander, but it only strayed as far as Ireland itself, and made me want to go there – although it’ll be too esoteric and slow and lacking in footage of pub bands playing for Americans in green felt top hats for Tourism Ireland. In many ways it’s a “keep out” sign.
Here’s something I don’t normally do, but John Brennan and Éamon Little clearly deserve a credit for their delicate and intelligent work on the sound of Silence. Fans of recording equipment will get something extra from the film, as we often see devices being set up, and, as with The Conversation, a touchstone for all films about sound, it wouldn’t work if the sound wasn’t conveyed properly. I enjoyed the moment, early on, when Eoghan opens and closes a window repeatedly, muffling then unmuffling the sound of the street below. It is a sort of meta-sonic joke: now you hear it, now you don’t.
It won’t be showing at your local Odeon, I suspect, but if you’re lucky enough to catch it at a smaller cinema, do so. Just eat beforehand.
“… And the last note, when you finish a song, falls back into silence again.”