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Bach is Back: a film Review of The Silence Before Bach

Kenneth Crab Feb 2

The Silence Before Bach is currently playing at the Film Forum.

Bach Is Back
The Silence Before Bach
Directed by Pere Portabella
Films 59, 2007

Even this early, it seems hardly premature to suggest that 2008 may not bring us a more purely beautiful film than Pere Portabella’s The Silence Before Bach. Now 78, Portabella, who was the subject of a MoMA retrospective last fall, has exerted a major force of artistic creativity, cultural renewal and political commitment on the past half-century of Spanish cinema. Movies backed by his production company, Films 59, including Carlos Saura’s Los Golfos The Delinquents, (1959) and Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), went against the tide of the fascist Franco regime in subversive and iconoclastic style.

Notwithstanding his prominent involvement in national politics (as a senator elected in Spain’s first democratic elections and a co-writer of the current Spanish constitution), Portabella’s own films reveal their political impetus “in attacking linguistic codes,” as he himself has stated. The aesthetic and political dimensions of his films are indistinguishable,  attesting to a cinematic sensibility he shares with countrymen Victor Erice and Jose-Luis Guerin, whose En El Ciudad De Sylvia (In The City Of Sylvia, 2007) proved one of the highlights of last year’s New York Film Festival.

The Silence Before Bach establishes the unifying power of Bach’s music across scarcely connecting narrative strands that bridge countries and centuries to tap into the lives of a plethora of people, including Bach himself, two musical truck drivers, a bookseller, a Leipzig tourist guide, a cellist and the cantor of the St. Thomas Church. By tracing a (Germanic-Hispanic) bond of European history through this music, Portabella does for Bach what Todd Haynes fails to do for Bob Dylan in the misconceived I’m Not There, which shows little interest in either music or American history.

Portabella’s work cannot be categorized as documentary or fiction, history or myth, but is predicated on the tensions between image and sound, space and time. The Silenc Before Bach explores music as language through the cinema, and does so with uncompromising radicalism.  In an age when vacuous rhetoric flourishes, Portabella reconnects with the musicality and physicality of language through the rhythms of Bach.

We see a dog, cat, horse, man and pianola move to music that envelops an invariably live soundtrack, but is never performed for an audience. Between the opening image of an empty gallery space and the white screen finale, a stage is set and a journey embarked on, not of genius or showmanship, but bodily motion, the mechanics of instruments, the concentration of rehearsals and practice sessions.

The process of work and the progress of travel flesh out the life force of Bach’s music, expressed most poignantly and literally in the blood Mendelssohn wipes off the sheets of paper in which his butcher has wrapped an order of meat, to discover that they contain the St. Matthew Passion. A similarly visceral (re)discovery of Bach is what Portabella offers us. If the artistic achievement of a film means that it should be eye- and ear-opening, and on a good day even make us open our hearts, The Silence Before Bach triumphs on all counts.

—Kenneth Crab

for other film reviews, visit: http://www.indypendent.org/category/reviews/