The Reeler

Reviews

January 30, 2008

The Silence Before Bach

Portabella explores the craft of making music with the same lightness of the music itself

If classical music were a weapon, tranquility would be its ammo of choice. With the capacity to lull listeners into utter complacency, the lighter works of classical composers tactfully disarm the senses. In The Silence Before Bach, Spanish filmmaker Pere Portabella examines the art and craft of making music with the same lightness of being emanating from the art itself. There’s no plot, action or anticipation, but Portabella holds our attention by tracking the connecting strands of sound.

Portabella, a veteran avant-garde director, moves through abstract and literal locations with effortless, arbitrary contentment. Pianos get tuned, truckers discuss the music of their upbringing and Bach himself sits at a grand piano unleashing his skill (temporal boundaries don’t exist here). Viewed as the sum of its parts, the conceits of The Silence Before Bach are slight, but that doesn't detract from its hypnotic ability to pull viewers into the expressive components of the music. In the opening sequence, a wooden piano rolls on its own through a barren room, the soothing melodies of the Goldberg Variations softly bouncing off the gleaming white walls. The piano twists and turns, following its own path. I was reminded of the colorful pre-pre-Winamp visualizations of Fantasia, which highlighted the oft-neglected image component emanating from auditory stimuli. Sound heavy? Then this isn’t for you.

Portabella has created a cinematic experiment for people already comfortable with classical art forms. The film explores the locations where Bach figured out his symphonies, and frequently showcases his music in modern locales in order to highlight its universal beauty. Instruments and actors are equally important here. Because there's more music than dialogue, audio frequently becomes a character in the experience. Through the endearing motif of people hovering over their beloved sound-making devices, Portabella demonstrates an intriguing connection between technology and art -- in essence, the plastics of noise.

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Following on the heels of the piano-production documentary Note by Note (which also screened at Film Forum), The Silence Before Bach further demonstrates that visual splendor comes in handy when investigating the nature of the so-called "finer arts." There are definite lulls in the (non) narrative, but any given boring moment is glossed over by wondrous big screen spectacles, such as a group of cello players huddled together in a subway car. This is the type of movie that even the most patient viewer could fall asleep watching, but that’s only to its credit: Portabella taps into the primal elegance of musical composition.

And yes, it could benefit from a little more excitement -- but imagine, for a moment, the prospects of dozing off to such a delicate construction, and dreaming of melodious bliss; then you wake up as the credits roll, and the real world is cold and barren. For the solace it offers from the daily grind of life, The Silence Before Bach makes a good promotional device for the long-dead composer. As one character in the movie states: "Without Bach, God would be third rate."



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