Anchored by a commanding lead perf by Emmanuelle Laborit as a deaf nun who follows her heart, Swiss drama “Secret Love” neatly sidesteps its faintly lurid title to merge a satisfying and affecting story of strength and emancipation. Firm, deliberate tone, coupled with inevitable ground swell of support by deaf communities worldwide, spells a very public fest life, with good arthouse potential and ancillary business to follow.
Story is told in flashback by Verena (Renate Becker), mother superior at a convent some distance from Zurich. Taken in by the order at a young age, deaf Antonia (Laborit) seems at first a well-adjusted fit; “here we are not afraid of silence,” says the well-meaning Verena, who communicates via basic sign language.
Now 27 and commuting by train to do charitable work at a downtown men’s shelter, Antonia meets and is awkwardly wooed by Lithuanian pickpocket Mikas (Lars Otterstetd), who says he’s a down-on-his-luck circus performer. At first shocked by his attentions, Antonia gives in to her desires and the two become lovers. When Mikas dies as the result of a run-in with the law, Antonia abruptly departs the order and flies to Washington, D.C., where she enrolls in theater courses at leading deaf institution Gallaudet U.
Director and co-scenarist Christoph Schaub seems less interested in the moral ramifications of Antonia’s actions than her newly awakened desire to be among those like her. Thus, pic’s religious angle serves as a visual manifestation of her isolation, with Schaub shrewdly avoiding most of the melodramatic pitfalls inherent in the narrative until Mikas’ too-convenient death.
Both leads are deaf stage vets, with the sincere Otterstetd acquitting himself nicely in his feature bow. But it is Laborit who carries the pic, with a passionate ferocity sure to draw the inevitable comparisons to Marlee Matlin’s Oscar-winning turn in “Children of a Lesser God.” (Laborit’s previous film credits include the deaf mother in German helmer Caroline Link’s 1998 Foreign Film Oscar nominee “Beyond Silence”). And Laborit studied at Gallaudet and adapted her experience into 1994 tome “The Cry of the Gull.”Tech credits are pro, with the visual strategies of d.p. Thomas Hardmeier and editor Fee Liechti allowing the signed scenes to breathe with a life and rhythm all their own. Bela Golya’s sophisticated sound mix lends a poignancy to the proceedings, discreetly underscoring the simple aural pleasures denied to the deaf.
Pic is performed in German and German sign language, with the lovers switching to the universally accepted International Sign Language for their scenes together. Print caught had both English and French subtitles.