Returning with only his second feature film since “Daens” in 1992, vet Belgian helmer Stijn Coninx struggles in telling the story of a young Dutch girl’s travails on her family’s pig farm in “Sea of Silence.” Although the film should be viewed as an equal collaboration with writer Jacqueline Epskamp, adapting her semi-autobiographical story, it also bears Coninx’s stamp of filmmaking concerned with characters unsure about themselves. Because pic is far milder than it warrants, commercial prospects appear dim across the Continent; Stateside hopes rest on an Oscar nom in the foreign-language category.
The early mood is cozy and sweet in this 1969 rural Dutch setting, as 9-year-old Caro (Neeltje de Vree) learns the rituals for her upcoming Communion and attends school where her teacher talks about the upcoming Apollo 11 moonshot. Caro also tends to her end of the work with a quartet of siblings and mother Ita (Johanna Ter Steege) on the family farm operated by loving but seriously alcoholic father Mees (Huub Stapel). And she takes her Catholicism so seriously that she prays for God to stop the moon landing, since, she reckons, lunar success will encourage more astronauts to trespass in heaven.
Intent is to charm auds with this sort of youthful eccentricity, and then disarm them with more wrenching family matters. And with Stapel summoning a full-barreled performance as a decent family man who can’t resist his drink, the effect alcoholism has on the clan is tragic; Coninx’s filmmaking, however, is too refined and tidy to deliver a real punch to the solar plexus.
A potentially interesting wrinkle appears when Ita’s much hipper and urbane sister Connie (Anneke Blok) invites Caro for a girl-to-girl stay-over, but it only amounts to another episode in a tale full of them. Various situations, such as Caro’s efforts to learn to swim as her classmates chide her, exist purely as obstacles for the little heroine to overcome, with no additional insights or resonance. By the time Neil Armstrong sets foot on the moon,Caro shows no sense of panic. De Vree is a bit chilly as a child thesp, but she delivers Caro’s borderline strangeness, while Ter Steege and Stapel firmly create a couple matched by devotion and nearly destroyed by booze.
Design details (particularly Kristen Van Passel’s acute costumes) nail the late ’60s, down to the clunky B&W TV sets. Walther Vanden Ende’s lensing and Henny Vrienen’s music are serviceably gentle. Original title translates as “Further Than the Moon,” a much better one than the mistranslated English title (also in subtitles) which should be “Sea of Tranquility,” referring to Apollo’s landing site.