Breaking the Sound and Sight Barrier, by Reed Lackey

18 Dec

It is a rare gift to stumble across a film about which you had heard and seen almost nothing and discovering a work of precision, artfulness, and profound emotional resonance. Silence & Darkness, the debut feature from writer and director Barak Barkan, is an intimate and deeply compelling work, inviting viewers into a hypnotic world between two sisters – one blind, the other deaf – and the terror and hope that is present in the life they share together.

Anna is blind. Her sister Beth is deaf. They live in a lovely rural home with their father, who expresses deep affection for them both but keeps his secrets closely guarded. It becomes clear that the sisters live in a very precisely controlled environment, dependent entirely upon each other and the unique language of connection that they share. When a chance visit from a neighbor raises unsettling questions about the nature of their home and the restrictions within it, a disturbing mystery begins to point towards an even more sinister truth.

The most immediate and arresting elements of Silence & Darkness are its sense of space and its patience. The picturesque landscape which surrounds the idyllic pastoral home is rich and serene. Barkan smartly lets us soak in the aesthetic with wide angles which breathe and invoke peace. Yet, when we watch Beth and Anna communicate with each other, it becomes clear how insular their experiences are in contrast with the openness of the physical space they inhabit. The sensory restrictions they each face push them into a dependence upon each other that is remarkable to watch because it is so unique. Mina Walker (Anna) and Joan Glackin (Beth) make this dynamic feel utterly authentic and fully commit to the demands their respective roles make of them.

Barkan boldly displays Anna and Beth’s relationship with stable, extended takes which act as windows into this unique world, exhibiting a trust of both his cast and his audience which winds up highly complimenting both. He also does not enlist the assistance of subtitles, embracing the reality that we are merely invited to glimpse this bond through a window and not to fully comprehend it.  The effect pushes us to watch the screen closely and decipher the intricacies in ways which transcend narrative to create something richly cinematic. Yet, while Barkan requests patience from his audience, he never tests that patience beyond reason. This microcosm of very few audible words is consistently compelling, particularly when its boundaries are deepened and tested.

The girls live with their father, played with impressive, subtle mystique by Jordan Lage, and his intentions are not immediate apparent. While it is evident from the early scenes that Father maintains a meticulously restrictive environment for the sisters, it is far less clear at first what his goals are in doing so. The ominous question of what happened to their mother also hovers over the narrative in haunting ways. But even as this mystery progresses and slowly reveals (most of) its secrets, it is the central anchor of Beth and Anna’s relationship which makes this film so compelling and rewarding. Watching their bond grow, become threatened – at least once directly undermined – and ultimately be forced to prove itself, was one of my favorite movie watching experiences of the year.

Silence & Darkness is a rare gem. Crafted with a minimal cast and crew, but with an impressive demonstration of mood and tone, it is simultaneously elusive and emotional. Its horror never has to be graphic to be disturbing, focusing entirely on character to generate both narrative energy and unease. In one of the film’s most impressive moments, the sisters attempt to uncover a clue by recreating a sound Anna heard from far away. In another scene, one of them has been severely traumatized and has closed herself off from any direct engagement while the other stubbornly fights to preserve their connection. Watching these two communicate through every means except words was one of the most fascinating displays of creative storytelling I’ve ever had the privilege to see.

And when it is finally revealed what this unique bond truly cost, and the power that it ultimately holds, the movie shifted from being one of the most haunting and compelling films I’d seen this year to also being one of the most moving. It was a privilege to see such a creative independent film and I cannot recommend it more highly.

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