Irish republican leader Bobby Sands, who died in Long Kesh prison in 1981 during a hunger strike, becomes a universal symbol of freedom and human resistance to tyranny in “The Silence of the Lark.” However, writer-director David Ballerini’s intense feature debut — shot in Italian with Italian actors (apart from Czech lead Ivan Franek) — is more an expressionistic reflection than an actual biopic, without the faintest attempt to pretend the setting (an abandoned factory in Turin) is Ireland. Painstakingly lensed with a heavy Pasolini influence, pic is hardly an easy watch but should get favorable notices at festivals.
Pic’s tone wobbles between poetry and reality. Bobby (Franek, dubbed into Italian by Riccardo Rossi) tells the story of a cruel man who tried to force a lark to sing against its will. Cut to a brutal manhunt in which faceless policemen hunt down and capture a terrified Bobby. Thrown into a naked cell with only a table, bed and slop bucket for company, he screams out his innocence. The prison governor (Flavio Bucci) orders the head guard (Marco Baliani) to “make him sing.”
Howling with fear one moment, beaten and tortured the next, Bobby draws on an unsuspected inner strength to resist the guards’ attempt to break his spirit. Script concentrates on the political prisoners held in the infamous H-Block and their refusal to wear prison uniforms. Bobby becomes a “blanketman,” preferring to wrap a blanket around his boxer-shorted body rather than don the uniform of convicted criminals.
Helmer Ballerini is less concerned with what actually occurred than with reaching into a universal dimension to depict the strongest emotion possible on screen. Thesp Franek’s intense face — which has no resemblance to the real Sands — is gradually transformed into a bearded Christ, then into an emaciated concentration camp victim.
Though newspaper headlines and newsreel footage of IRA bombings are used, film’s main thrust is away from history and toward generalization. The depicting of Sands as a poet, saint and martyr without mentioning his political role denies the audience any basis for judgment.
A subtle cameo by Anna Maria Gherardi, as Sands’ mother, momentarily brings the story into a recognizable historic frame. As Sands’ head-guard nemesis, Baliani, dressed like a German storm trooper, is all ferocity and mindless anger.
Marianna Sciveres, who handled the costumes as well as the bare post-industrial sets, aims for a stripped-down look with echoes of the Nazi camps. Lenser Lorenzo Adorisio’s richly textured lighting contrasts the enclosed cells with large open spaces.