Both stylistic tour-de-force and neverending assault on one’s patience, Amir Naderi’s latest black-and-white excursion into obsession may be the most extended mise en scene of pure frustration in cinema history, as a deaf-mute boy searches for answers on an old audio tape of his dead mother’s voice. Formally abstract yet intensely emotional, pic returns to the concentrated minimalism of Naderi’s seminal Iranian works, but with a frenzy and fragmentation all the stronger for being crammed into two impossibly claustrophobic spaces. A fest must-see, this demanding masterwork could command fringe arthouse play.
A letter to his mother from a fan of her radiotalk show leads 11-year-old Jesse (Charlie Wilson) to a storage facility in Queens. There, in a tiny locked room, an assortment of tape recorders set to different bands, and row upon row of meticulously labeled boxes are stacked to the ceiling. All bear the names of women talkshow hosts and the episodes’ recording dates.
Working his way through the piles with no plan or logic, Jesse grows increasingly impatient, flinging aside boxes and climbing over mountains of spilled cassettes, his anger escalating.
As the pace of the search accelerates, so does Naderi’s editing, the actions chopped up into flurries of motion exploding around the tiny room as the camera rides Jesse’s whirlwind. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is disorientingly broken up, the cacophony of crashing boxes and crunching cassettes irregularly erupting into weird, subterranean, echo-y silence.
A streak of perversity runs through “Sound Barrier.” When Jesse finally emerges from the warehouse with the tape and compatible tape recorder, he situates himself at the noisiest spot in the city, on a nearby drawbridge heavily traveled by trucks, and attempts to flag down passersby on foot or bicycle, offering them $20 to recite the contents of the tape so that he might lip-read their words.
The decibel level is excruciating, as trucks thunder by with horns blaring, the barrage of splintered sound and image no less claustrophobic for being outdoors. It’s a struggle to hear through the din the traumatic circumstances of what turns out to be Jesse’s psychosomatic hearing loss — with bits of narrative doled out through sound distortions, rewinds, close-ups of moving lips, and stretches of throbbing silence as the wheels of the cassette slowly turn.
The layered sound-and-image collage never palls, as exhilarating as it is exhausting. Then, switching gears, Naderi throws in a maddening audio deus ex machina that denies catharsis.
The viewer’s frustration is mirrored in Jesse’s uncontrollable rage as he destroys all existing cassettes of his mother’s show, the narrow ribbons of tape blanketing the bridge and streaming into the water. In one of film’s most potent set-pieces of futility, Jesse belatedly tries to retrieve the tapes amid the oncoming traffic.
Like Naderi’s Teheran-set “The Runner,” or his New York-set “Marathon,” “Barrier” is about fierce concentration on deciphering seemingly unintelligible codes deeply embedded in specific topography. Stubbornness and anger prove potent enablers, and “Barrier” ends in unlikely, strangely solitary, triumph.
Mike Simmonds’ stunning black-and-white lensing defies spatial limits and pedestrian self-preservation. Imagery is rhythmically kaleidoscoped through 1,753 separate cuts, though one might mourn the budgetary strictures that forced Naderi to switch from Super-16mm to HD.