People sometimes ask me whether it’s difficult reviewing movies made by filmmakers whom I’ve gotten to know personally, and the answer nearly always is: That’s why I don’t. It’s far easier to recuse oneself (that is, to claim “conflict of interest” and step away) than to run the risk of pulling one’s punches so as not to upset an acquaintance. “The Music of the Silence” is the exception, and it’s no pleasure to report that the film makes nearly every wrong decision imaginable, beginning with its source material — a mushy third-person memoir by Andrea Bocelli in which the Italian opera tenor describes how blindness, prejudice, and waves of humiliation and discouragement nearly convinced him (or a character blandly named Amos Bardi) to abandon singing altogether. A toothless ode to a still-living celebrity, it’s a film that may appeal to very young children and very old ladies, but seems sure to bore everyone in between.
I met director Michael Radford while serving on a film festival jury in Monte Carlo last year, and I found him to be as erudite and charming as they come: Unlike so many filmmakers, he was not a born cinephile, and did not see his first movie until he was nearly 20 years old. In the space where other directors so often distract themselves with a single-minded obsession for cinema, Radford is a more broad-ranging cultural omnivore, and his work is rich in its love of language (he is perhaps best known for “Il Postino,” about Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s years of exile in Italy) and literature (his adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” found fresh relevance upon its re-release last year).
Radford speaks fluid Italian, which explains why he returns again and again to the country in his films — from his debut, “Another Time, Another Place” (which he joking recalls inspiring a New York critic to advise, “Go see another movie!”), to 2004 Shakespeare adaptation “The Merchant of Venice” — and may have something to do with his choice of projects in “The Music of Silence,” a lugubrious and all-around joyless work of hagiography by any measure. If I seem less interested in Bocelli than I do in Radford (who comes to this project following the scandalous implosion of a film called “The Mule”), that’s simply because this vanity project gives us no reason to care about young Amos’ uphill struggle.
Because Amos is a one-dimensional stand-in for Bocelli, we know that the first few decades were tough, but that things turn out marvelously for him once he reaches the Sanremo Music Festival at age 34, where his performance of Italian rock star Zucchero’s “Miserere” achieved record scores. Like Bocelli, Amos is diagnosed with glaucoma as an infant, and loses his sight completely by the age of 12 — at which point, his mother (Luisa Ranieri) throws her hands to the heavens and breaks down in tears. What will her son do? (Why, he will become a world-famous pop-era singer, of course.)
Amos discovers music early and displays an aptitude for singing from a young age, but suffers an embarrassing setback when his voice cracks while singing at a family wedding. Should he give up singing? (Did Bocelli?) Later, after a detour spent studying law, he begins playing piano at a nightclub. His father (Jordi Mollà) asks an opera critic to come listen and offer his feedback. The professional sneers that Amos has no discipline and doesn’t stand a chance professionally, receiving a glass of water in the face as payment. Does that dissuade Amos? (Did it deter Bocelli?)
Finally, after a long first hour, Amos finds his maestro (Antonio Banderas), who hears potential in the largely untrained student, but insists that Amos not talk or sing except when absolutely necessary until such time as he learns how to use his voice properly. Banderas asks whether Amos has a girlfriend (he does) and whether she is “willing to accept the boring, extremely irritating person you will become after my lessons” (she is). A better question might be: Are we?
Not that Amos was ever very interesting or charming to begin with. As a young adult, he’s played by Toby Sebastian, one of the seemingly endless number of “Game of Thrones” bit players who’ve launched movie careers off the back of that popular HBO series. Sebastian is handsome enough, with big full lips and an adorable layer of baby fat, but his imitation of a shy, vision-impaired singer is frustrating. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Bocelli’s book is the fact that he doesn’t depict his blindness as a handicap, whereas Sebastian’s performance (so directed by Radford) treats it with far too much pathos, or else with such hollow aphorisms as, “The sun always comes out after the storm. Have faith, Amos!” (Over the end credits, we learn that Bocelli attributes his success to God and to love, but even if this is true, it doesn’t make for especially satisfying drama.)
The larger obstacle here is the decision to film Bocelli’s story in English, which requires a decent but uninteresting cast to deliver their lines through heavy accents. When it comes time for Amos to sing, there’s no hesitation to dub his voice — which never once appears to originate from within the actor’s chest — so why not allow the cast to speak their native language?
“The Music of Silence” is a film of many mysteries, though the most fascinating ones are not reflected on-screen. Who is this film for? If intended for Bocelli’s worldwide fans, why not incorporate the singer himself into the film’s telling in some high-concept way? If Bocelli’s following is greatest in his native Italy, why not make the film in Italian? And if it’s the music that interests most about Bocelli, why isn’t there less moping and more singing in the movie? If Radford and I had maintained some kind of friendship, I might be able to answer these questions for you here. At least I take some comfort in knowing that, like Bocelli, Radford knows how to bounce back from a bad review.