Reviews Short Narrative

Silent Movie (2020) – 5 stars

Director: Melo Viana

Writer: Melo Viana

Cast: Ketlyn Taynara, Anthonny Vinicius, Victor Henrique, Stephany Vitória, Sarah Alexia, Alice Arruda, Yasmin Vitória, Echelen Gabrielle, Isabelle Beatriz

Running time:  15mins

The third decade of the 21st century already bears a strong resemblance to the period in which Melo Viana, a Brazilian film maker, has chosen to set Silent Movie – the early 1930’s. Populism and nationalism are on the rise, alongside a growing irrationalism and denigration of science. In history repeated as farce, instead of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, we have Trump, Putin, and Xi Jinping.

In the United States, a grotesque demagogue whose only coherent policies appear to be to burn more coal and to promote hatred of Black people, manages to actually increase the number of people voting for him. Meanwhile, in Viana’s own country, its Donald Lite, Jair Bolsonaro – who called the Covid-19 virus a little sniffle – that is attempting to turn the Amazon rainforest into a cattle ranch, and wants to turn the nation into an armed camp, still riding high in the opinion polls.

In Silent Movie, Viana and his team give us a narrative remedy to the current situation, as three children in 1930s Brazil make their own film projector and show their film to their friends. Viana’s notes accompanying the release of Silent Movie, make it clear that it is a political project based around mutual aid and cooperation. The children work together to produce a thing of beauty. To say that Viana’s hymn to mutuality is timely is an understatement.

Viana uses the framework of Silent Movie to pay homage to the film making of the early 1930s, a period of profound technological change when sound became a tool and a reality. Some directors were still making their films without sound; some had immediately embraced the new technology. The kids, in order to get raw material to show on their projector, go to the local cinema to search for discarded celluloid – a subtle echoing of their real community’s means of existence. The film was made in the Brazilian city of Curitiba. The actors were recruited from a street drama class for kids from a community in which most earn their living sifting rubbish at the city’s garbage. And they turn out to be some actors indeed.

They enter through a corridor lined with film posters from the era. We see a whole range: including Chaplin, De Mille, Gance, Renoir, Vigo, Bunuel, Eisenstein, Mizoguchi, Dovzhenko, and Mario Peixoto – the genius of early Brazilian cinema. Throughout the film, Viana references favourite shots from these films both for what we see in ‘reality’ and the meta-film that we see through the kids’ projector. Their use adds a deeper layer of meaning to Silent Movie which will make you want to have a look at the different directors’ work. However, not having a knowledge of 30s films does not hinder an enjoyment of the film in any way (and for what it is worth, I only got one of the references.)

Shot entirely in black and white, the opening scene sees a group of children seen from above with the girl (Ketlyn Taynara) counting out numbers – her and the two boys (Anthonny Vinicius and Victor Henrique) leave the group. We then see one of the boys looking in wonder as a hand-powered printing press pounds out copies of a movie flyer: for Dovzhenko’s Earth. Later in the film, we see the press again and it is printing posters for Piexoto’s Limite. These are both markers laid down by Viana as these are the two works most referenced in his archaeological sub-plot.

The team lay out their tools on a bench and begin to assemble their projector: cutting holes in a show box and removing the filament from an electric lightbulb. They then head off to the local cinema to get their material. As they go down the corridor of movie posters the speed goes to slow motion and the kids run their hands across the posters as the images on the posters merge and blend into each other. Following the hallucinatory moment, the team then returns and goes through the footage.

At this point, Viana interjects into the real movie scenes from the meta film to be made from the found objects the kids have brought back. A bunch of apples in the pouring rain (the one reference that your neophyte reviewer managed to spot – a homage to the end sequence of Earth). A series of carnival death masks appear next to sunflowers. Taynara is framed next to a sunflower. Taynara finds a frame of, I think Lilian Gish, holding up and examining a piece of cloth, we then cut from the frame to the reality of Taynara assessing the frame in the exact pose as the original actor. The images of the historical and the contemporary actor have coalesced before our eyes.  It is an extraordinary and mesmerising piece of cinema.

Having assembled their footage, the team move on to their final preparations for their film show. Taynara carefully fills up the lightbulb with water. A mishap – Taynara slips and drops the glass. The mood turns, the team are deflated. However, they pick themselves up and get back to work. Taynara gets a new light bulb and shows it to one of the boys and as she does so their hands both clasp the bulb and each other’s hands in an affirmation of solidarity.

The kids’ friends from the first scene file into the home-made cinema and we are ready to go. There is a slight delay as we wait for the sun to emerge – it does so and reflects its light from a shard of mirrored glass through the water-filled light bulb, through the film, through the hole in the shoebox to the wall as movie screen. The kids watch the film entranced and with a sense of wonder – this is the 1930s – for poor kids this would be their first experience of cinema.

The cinematography led by Lucio Kodato is a tour force and exploits to the full the opportunities that the black and white medium offers in terms of contrast and shadow. This is a film where every frame has been thought long and hard about with the result that a multitude of images stay in the viewer’s memory. My own personal favourites were the lovingly rendered shots of tools – the scissors for making the projector and the blocks of typeface for printing the posters. The effect for me was similar to watching early Bunuel where everyday objects are shot as if to appear magical and numinous. Possibly, this was one of Viana’s intentions, but I also got the feeling that we were being asked to appreciate the beauty inherent in any craft activity. Silent Movie with its constant interchange between the meta-film and the film itself must have been one hell of a project to edit and Jussara Locatelli has done a superb job. For me, the highlight of the editing was the dream-like sequence with the movie posters – a stunning piece of work.

The actors. The three leads put in pitch-perfect performances: they communicate the joy and excitement of making art whilst brilliantly establishing through gesture and facial expression their characters’ sense of self. The fact that they had never acted before taking part in Silent Movie is… mind-blowing.

Silent Movie is not a silent movie. We hear the whirr of the hand printer, the running of spools of film, the sound of birdsong as well as the children’s voices when they are all together in the opening sequence. I believe that Viana by this tantalisingly sparing use of sound is consciously alluding to the necessity in the early 1930s of negotiating the potentiality of the new technology. One difficulty this does throw up for reviewing the film is that without any audio cues, while one can guess who Taynara is as the only girl, it is impossible to work out which of the boys is Henrique and which is Vinicius – but it’s not a problem likely to phase the average viewer.

Interestingly, Viana employs sound to add another layer to his exercise in film archaeology. One of the boys gets on a barrel to enable him to look outside a high window – we assume to look out on the queue to the city’s cinema – and we hear a hubbub of crowd voices from the street. In his director’s notes, Vianna tells us that these are taken from real voice recordings from the 1930s made in cities as far apart as Nanking and London. 1930s reality has been subtly inserted into a 21st century fictional account of the 1930s – a nice touch. In a delicious piece of playfulness.

Silent Movie is a more conventional silent movie when it comes to musical accompaniment, however. The music is credited to: Wandula, Edith de Camargo, Marcelo Torrone, and Rodrigo Stradiotto. And what wonderful music it is. The score subtly adds depth and resonance without in any way intruding – sitting at the back of our consciousness and deepening our engagement. This should be viewed as the ideal formula for a film with no dialogue – with two pieces particularly effective. The keyboard fugue when we are coming to terms with the mini-tragedy of the broken lightbulb – as the camera focuses in on each shard of broken glass it seems to be delineated by each chord at it is played – and the joie de vivre dance of the main theme, which is all swirling accordion, violin, and keyboards, succeeds completely in encapsulating the film’s celebration of life and creativity.

It seems a bit otiose to be awarding stars for a film that deserves to go on to be acknowledged as one of the great works of 21st century cinema. My hope for Silent Movie is that it will be able to break out of the high culture ghetto in which corporate algorithms will try to ensnare it, along with a number of other promising short films out there. There is a good chance of it managing this – primarily thanks to the young actors’ charm and vivacity, which make it so easy and such fun to engage with. To have any hope of our weathering the coming ecological crises of which the pandemic is a precursor, we need art that is able to demonstrate that the species and the planet’s survival can only be achieved through cooperation. I think we can all play a part in this by letting people know how important this film is! I realise that future catastrophe is a present-day reality for many of the peoples of this world including those picking through Curitiba’s garbage dump. I hope that the coming success of Silent Movie goes some way to improve the lives of those marginalised kids and their families involved in its making. As the graffito painted on the railway bridge in my neighbourhood has it: Cooperation Not Competition.

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