Film Review: ‘The Music of Silence’

Everything you never wanted to know about beloved Italian opera tenor Andrea Bocelli's early years, from the director of 'Il Postino.'

Toby Sebastian, Luisa Ranieri, Jordi Mollà, Ennio Fantastichini, Antonio Banderas. (English, Italian dialogue)

1 hour 55 minutes

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Music of Silence'

Reviewed online, Feb. 2, 2018. Running time: 115 MIN.

Production: (Italy) An Ambi Distribution release of an AMBI Media Group presentation of a Picomedia production, in collaboration with RAI Fiction, in association with Empyrean Pictures. Producers: Roberto Sessa, Andrea Iervolino, Monika Bacardi, Motaz M. Nabulsi. Executive producers: Joshua Skurla, Stefano Scozzese, Oscar Generale, Mirco Da Lio, Matteo Martone.


Director: Michael Radford. Screenplay: Anna Pavignano, Michael Radford, in collaboration with Andrea Bocelli. Camera (color): Stefano Falivene. Editor: Roberto Missiroli. Music: Gabriele Roberto, Cam Srl of the Sugar Group.

Cast: Toby Sebastian, Luisa Ranieri, Jordi Mollà, Ennio Fantastichini, Antonio Banderas. (English, Italian dialogue)

More Music

  • 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band

    Film Review: 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas'

    Settling in to watch “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” you may have a burning question that applies to almost no other rock documentary, and that is: Who, exactly, are these guys? The ones behind the beards? If you’re old enough, of course, you probably know that ZZ Top started out, in 1969, [...]


    Jay-Z to Acquire Ownership Stake in NFL Team (Report)

    Jay-Z will soon acquire a “significant ownership interest” in an NFL team, TMZ reported on Friday. The team was not disclosed, but a source told the site the deal will happen in the “near future,” adding that the billionaire rapper “wants to continue to be a change agent for the NFL.” Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation, [...]


    How 'Blinded by the Light' Brought Bruce Springsteen's Music to the Screen for a Song

    Blinded by the Light co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha knows firsthand what it feels like to be an outsider. Born in Kenya when the country was a British colony, she grew up part of the Indian/Asian diaspora who made their way from East Africa to London. For that reason, the 59-year-old’s movies has always dealt with the [...]

  • Blake Shelton, Trace AdkinsCMA Music Festival

    Blake Shelton Takes a Shot at 'Old Town Road' in New Single

    Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins have just released a duet, “Hell Right,” that seems to have a beef with “Old Town Road.” But is it a light-hearted, maybe even affectionate slam — or should anyone read culture-war significance into the two country stars expressing a preference for Hank Williams Jr. over Lil Nas X, the breakout [...]

  • Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven

    Department of Justice Backs Led Zeppelin in ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Copyright Case

    The U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in on the next big music copyright case on the horizon following the Katy Perry “Dark Horse” decision, and taken Led Zeppelin’s side in the long-running copyright dispute that pits the writers of the group’s anthem “Stairway to Heaven” against the publishers of the earlier song “Taurus” by [...]

  • Teddy Riley Walk of Fame

    From Blackstreet to Hollywood Blvd. as Teddy Riley Receives a Star on the Walk of Fame

    Many musical artists are responsible for hits, whether recording and writing for themselves or producing smashes for others. Teddy Riley’s got the success, having fashioned platinum-plated R&B works for, and with, Bobby Brown, Michael Jackson, Keith Sweat, Doug E. Fresh and more since the mid-’80s, not to mention the music of his own slick soul [...]

  • Album Review: Snoh Aalegra

    Album Review: Snoh Aalegra’s ‘Ugh, Those Feels Again’

    Apart from having one of the all-time greatest album-sequel titles, “Ugh, Those Feels Again” — which follows this R&B-leaning Swedish-Persian singer’s 2017 debut full-length, “Feels” — succeeds on a far more complex level: making familiar sounds unfamiliar. Snoh Aalegra signed to Sony when she was just 13 and released a more pop-leaning album under the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content