'Los Silencios': Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes
Maria Paula Tabares Pena in 'Silences'
Meditative and moving.

Brazilian writer-director Beatriz Seigner presents a family caught between countries, and between life and death, in this eerie drama from Latin America.

Set in the marshy Amazonian region where the borders between Brazil, Colombia and Peru rub against each other, co-production Silences (Los Silencios) explores a variety of porous boundaries, not just between political states, but also between the living and the dead, land and river, documentary and fiction, and horror and realism. It's a slow-going work at first, but one that bewitches by degrees, softening up the viewer with entrancing visuals to ensure the last-act emotional sucker punch lands with maximum force.

Given that there are no big-named stars, and second-time writer-director Brazillian Beatriz Seigner is only known so far for her debut Bollywood Dream, it will take critical support and faith from distributors to help this travel beyond the festival circuit. However, audiences who manage to see it will likely find the experience artistically and spiritually nourishing.

The long-held, inky opening shot is filmed from a small boat creeping slowly toward a jetty in the middle of the night. Amparo (professional Colombian actor Marleyda Soto) and her two children, 12-year-old Nuria (Maria Paula Tabares Pena) and nine-year-old Fabio (Adolfo Savinino), disembark and are met by Amparo's aged aunt (Dona Albina), who welcomes them to her home, a tiny waterlogged landmass called "La Isla de la Fantasia" — a name that, if translated literally, may provoke giggles from those old enough to remember the tacky 1970s TV series Fantasy Island.

It's a poor but proud community, living in wooden housing built on high stilts with rickety interconnecting walkways instead of sidewalks and a boat jetty by every door, a place periodically semi-flooded by the Amazon. Amparo and her children are refugees from Colombia, hoping to emigrate to Brazil. As we watch her negotiate with the local elementary school, attorneys and officials with a folder stuffed with documents, it becomes clear that she lost her husband and a child in the recent civil war between the left-wing FARC insurgents and the Colombian government, a conflict that has just been resolved by peace negotiations covered in overhead news reports.

The bodies of Amparo's husband and daughter haven't yet been found, and if they find the remains then Amparo could qualify for reparations. So when a man (Brazilian thespian Enrique Diaz) is discovered hiding in the family's new hut by the silent, watchful Nuria, viewers are likely to assume that it's Adam, her missing father. However, Nuria's new friend at school Maria (Alida Pandurro) warns that the island is full of ghosts who sometimes enter the bodies of the living or play tricks. Could Adam, and other characters as well, perhaps be not exactly what they seem?

Seigner deals out the twists with unfussy efficiency, and ultimately the Sixth Sense-style small shocks are much less the point than the emotional voltage that powers them. Here, the dead have a lot to say, and the means to get their message across via rituals that give them as equal a voice as the living have at their regular village town hall meetings.

The recollections shared in large part concern the losses and pain they experienced as a consequence of the war, which one speaker described as leaving her feeling "half-dead." In a post-screening Q&A session after the premiere at Cannes, Seigner revealed that some of these stories came from the non-professional extras whom she'd hired for the shoot, people who really lived through the war and were in some cases sharing their stories publicly for the first time. These stories are presented with deep respect, and in some alchemical, magical-realist way, the congruity between their suffering merges perfectly with the fictional story of this family's own suffering and search for forgiveness.

As the title might suggest, particular care has been taken with the film's soundscape, which mixes silence and quietude with natural noise and music made with what sounds like indigenous instruments. Equally thoughtful is the use of color throughout in the production and costume design, which starts out in shades of drab and ordinary and gets more vibrant by the end for symbolic reasons.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
Production: A Miriade Filmes, Enquadramento Producoes, Cine-Sud Promotion, Diafragma presentation
Cast: Marleyda Soto, Enrique Diaz, Maria Paula Tabares Pena, Adolfo Savinino, Dona Albina, Alida Pandurro

Director/screenwriter: Beatriz Seigner
Producers: Beatriz Seigner, Leonardo Mecchi, Thierry Lenouvel, Daniel Garcia
Director of photography: Sofia Oggioni
Production designer: Marcela Gomez
Costume designer: Ana Maria Acosta Ospian
Editor: Renata Maria, Jacques Comets
Music: Nascuy Linares
Casting: Catalina Rodriguez, Carlos Medina
Sales: Pyramide Intl.

90 minutes