Director: Pere Portabella (The Bridge of Warsaw)
Writera: Xavier Albertí, Pere Portabella, Carles Santosi
Producer: Pere Portabella
Starring: Christian Atanasiu, Féodor Atkine, George-Christoph Biller, Christian Brembeck, Àlex Brendemühl
MPAA Rating: NR
Running time: 102 min
Nearly a century before Mozart revolutionized music, there was a German composer by the name of Johann Sebastian Bach. Mozart’s rise and fall has been well documented and even dramatized due in part, to the public’s fascination with the flamboyant genius who left behind nearly 600 works of music but also because of the drama that apparently plagued the man who was well recognized in his time yet managed to die in squalor and poverty. In contrast, Bach’s life was quiet and reserved. A religious man, Bach was well known during his lifetime as an organist but his compositions were considered old fashioned and stuffy and it was a number of centuries before his music came to be appreciated as the works of a master. Unfortunately, Pere Portabella’s The Silence Before Bach is no Amadeus, that would be impossible without some major embellishments, but in its own way, it pays homage to the man behind some of the best recognized compositions in Western music.
It opens with a dance; a player piano swiveling smoothly over a hardwood floor, meandering from side to side at once moving with and against the music. An uncommon sight followed by one which is much more common: a piano tuner at work. It has been suggested that Portabella’s film is an attempt to show how Bach’s music is timeless and how in entwines with everyday life, with all types of people of all ages and cultures and in part, that seems to be an accurate description. Portabella provides slivers of stories – a truck driver, a beautiful woman, a piano tuner – none of which appear to interact yet all of which share a common thread: the music of a master.
The interludes themselves are varied; some are nothing more than beautiful visuals which are evoked, however obscurely, by the music itself (a dancing Clydesdale) while others are stories which carry an emotion echoed in the music (the lonely truck driver who takes solace in playing Bach). It all seems rather disconnected, a series of vignettes befitting a composition but as the film progresses, a fine thread begins to appear. One starts to see the connection between a few of the narratives while others seem to be forgotten and that is where the film loses its footing. Until the point where the stories begin to meet, I was happy to believe that these were just short bursts of brilliant ties between music and visuals but the attempt to connect some of the stories lead me to believe, perhaps wrongly, that Portabella was trying to tell a narrative story in an uncommon way and in that regard, he has failed rather miserably. The thread of music which weaves through his tapestry of visuals works wonderfully but there isn’t enough story to bring and hold the pieces together and the attempt only manages to confuse the audience.
Yet, the lack of narrative does little to detract from the beauty of individual images and of a few of the scenes. From the gorgeous collection of cellos on the subway (I lost count at 18) which is easily one of the best moments captured on film over the past year, to the hair raising organ which sounded like something out of a horror movie, The Silence Before Bach did deliver a handful of awe inspiring moments.
Though in and of itself, the music of Bach is inspiring and well wroth hearing in theater sound and Poretabella’s visuals are beautiful, the film is deliberately slow paced. I walked away feeling like I’d just had a beautiful, in comprehensive dream and where as that may appeal to a few, others will take more pleasure from listening to a CD in the comfort of their living room. Still, there is a magical quality in The Silence Before Bach and it’s certainly a film to be experienced though perhaps only by Bach aficionados.
Click “play” to see the trailer: