Review: ‘The Silence Before Bach’

Spanish avant-garde helmer Pere Portabella's "The Silence Before Bach" defies categorization.

Composed of seemingly unrelated vignettes that span countries, languages and centuries, Spanish avant-garde helmer Pere Portabella’s “The Silence Before Bach” defies categorization: A stalking player piano, two truckers, a female equestrienne (plus horse), a blind piano tuner (plus dog), a bewigged tour guide, a nude female cellist and Johann Sebastian Bach perform their appointed rounds in an atmosphere of quiet subversion. Arguably stronger conceptually than visually, surreal mix of the unexpected and the banal is definitely not to everybody’s taste. But the music is inarguably sublime. Hybrid docu opens Jan. 30 at Gotham’s Film Forum.

Virtually unknown (except perhaps as producer of Carlos Saura’s “The Delinquents” and Luis Bunuel’s “Viridiana”) until a series of recent retrospectives in Europe and the U.S. brought his own highly eclectic experimental oeuvre to light, 78-year-old enfant terrible Portabella seasons his apparent humanism with a peculiarly deadpan mordancy.

Anyone expecting an austere, quietly reverent musical excursion will be quickly disabused by the sight of a player piano emerging from an empty gallery to advance on the receding camera, the piano’s moving parts fluttering madly to the notes of “The Goldberg Variations” (pic’s most-sampled Bach opus).

Portabella’s occasional forays into costume-drama biopic are often obviously apocryphal: Bach (Christian Brembeck) takes time out of his perusal of a score to correct his young son’s rendition of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” (not enough tension) before getting caught up in the music himself. His pregnant wife then brings in his neglected score — closeup on the “St. Matthew Passion.”

Later in the film (and a century later in time), Mendelssohn’s manservant wanders through a magnificently rendered marketplace, where a butcher hands him a bloody roast wrapped in the very same score of the “St. Matthew Passion.” He runs to his master, a lost masterpiece is restored, and the idiocy and literalness of biopic convention are ironically offset by the beauty of the underlying musical truth.

Many sequences unfold as pure, joyful exercises in high concept, not dissimilar to Peter Sellars’ or Adrian Marthaler’s incongruous musicvideos of classical etudes: Some 20-odd cellists, seated facing each other on an empty subway, simultaneously downbow into a “Suite for Unaccompanied Cello,” their rich chords counterpointing the whooshing sounds of the subway in postmodern harmony.

Other scenes play as less serendipitous, stressing the necessary tension Bach finds lacking in his son’s too melodious performance: One quasi-sadistic sequence intercuts one of the “Variations” with a horse-training session.

Audio and visual tech credits are highly accomplished.

The Silence Before Bach

Spain

Production

A Films 59 production, in collaboration with 3 Televisio de Catalunya. Directed by Pere Portabella. Written by Portabella, Carles Santos, Xavier Alberti.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Tomas Pladevall; editor, Oskar Xabier Gomez; art director, Quim Roy; costume designer, Montse Figueras; sound (Dolby Digital), Albert Manera, Ricard Casals. Reviewed at Film Forum, New York, Jan. 24, 2008. (In Venice Film Festival -- Horizons.) Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Christian Brembeck, Alex Brendemuhl, Feodor Atkine, Daniel Ligorio, Georg C. Biller, Georgina Cardona, Franz Schuchart. (Spanish, Catalan, German, Italian, French dialogue)

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