Absorbing if slightly credibility-straining, Gallic criss-crosser “Silent Voices” unfolds the backstories, both tragic and redemptive, of people visiting a Provencal prison on a particular day, albeit for very different reasons. Debut by writer-helmer Lea Fehner, who’s made several shorts, offers meaty roles for its impressive cast, builds suspense adroitly and makes good use of its contempo Marseilles locations. On the debit side, the screenplay veers just a shade too much into melodrama, creating a made-for-TV feel. Still, “Silent” could find a voice on the fest circuit and do moderate biz domestically.
Attention-grabbing opening features a crowd of disparate visitors impassively watching a hysterical woman as they wait to enter Aix Luynes prison. Turns out the plot revolves not around the crying femme, but around three characters seen in the observing crowd. Flashbacks then fill in each story.
Sixteen-year-old Laure (Pauline Etienne) comes from a middle-class family, but a streak of rebelliousness makes her receptive to the charms of slightly older Alexander (Vincent Rottiers), an angry young man who lives in squatted properties in and around Marseilles. When Alexander winds up in prison for fighting with a cop, Laure discovers the only way she can see him is if she comes with an accompanying adult. Unable to ask her own famly, she persuades a cynical but bored young doctor, Antoine (Julien Lucas), to be her chaperone.
Weak-willed motorcycle courier Stephane (Reda Kateb) is constantly henpecked and humiliated by his g.f., Elsa (Dinara Droukarova). By chance, he meets shady businessman Pierre (Marc Barbe), who is amazed that Stephane looks exactly like Pierre’s incarcerated associate, currently serving a 25-year prison sentence. Pierre offers Stephane a substantial amount of money if he will swap places with the prisoner during a visit so the latter can escape.
Finally, Algerian Zorah (Farida Rahouadj, giving the pic’s standout perf) travels from her homeland to Marseille to investigate what happened between her murdered son and his killer, a Frenchman named Francois. In order to speak to Francois, Zorah insinuates herself with his sister Celine (Delphine Chuillot) and offers to visit the lonely Francois in prison, but it turns out the relationship between the two men was not what Zorah expected.
Fehner demonstrates empathy for her largely working-class characters (the bourgeois folk come off slightly less sympathetically), and the pic teems with nicely observed, incisive little scenes, such as one in which Pierre, like a helmer himself, teaches Stephane how to impersonate his associate’s confidence, or one featuring charming banter between Laure and Antoine.
Less convincing is the contrived lookalike plot device or the fact that Celine, once she’s discovered Zorah’s real motivations, would let her go through with her planned visit. But the pic’s emotional current is powerful enough to temporarily sweep away such concerns, at least as it’s unspooling, while Fehner demonstrates a knack for constructing suspense, particularly during the climactic last scene.
Gritty lensing by Jean-Louis Vialard conveys a docu feel throughout, while Luc Meillan’s score is unobtrusive but effective.