With a family and a circus brought together by a meaningless conflict, Janez Burger’s Silent Sonata stages the symphonic madness of war.
A War Of Words by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
If the idea of a silent Slovenian war film strikes fear into your heart, read on. For, the Seventh Art has never been more theatrical. Like the absurdist theatre of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, Janez Burger’s Silent Sonata takes place in the middle of nowhere – a bizarre and abstract meeting between a circus troupe and a bereft family of civilians caught in no-man’s-land. And with its Anthony Quinn lookalike, Burger’s film recalls, perhaps most vividly, Federico Fellini’s La Strada, with its mythology of metaphors. But assembling an eclectic cast of strong men, contortionists, fire-breathers and clowns from all over the globe, Burger has created a fantasy world outside of space and time, where the children whose mother has just been killed in the cross-fire can grieve, where ring-masters can die and where itinerant performers can just be.
A family of four live in a house in the middle of the country. One day, war arrives on their doorstep, and when a grenade is thrown during a battle, their wife and mother (Marjuta Slamic) is killed. When a truck drives towards them one night, father (Leon Lucev) son (Devi Bragalini) and daughter (Luna Zimic Mijovic) are fearful that more military troops might return, and the children hide in a small space behind the walls. Instead, it’s the Circus Fantasticus looking for a bed for their dying circus leader (Ravil Sultanov) to rest in. As the performers practise and the family mourn, their two worlds negotiate an uneasy and unspoken peace, through generous acts of kindness. Until finally, the Circus decides to put on one last show for their ring-master.
It’s not only because his performers speak a broad spectrum of languages that Janez Burger decided to make his Silent Sonata silent. In fact, rather, it’s because he decided on a silent film that he could cast artistes from all over the world to take part in his existential no-man’s-land drama. For Silent Sonata is a film about war, where words have become meaningless. But rather than a boys’ own adventure of dive-bombers or a biting interrogation of the horrors of war, Silent Sonata looks at the permanency of war – an ongoing battle with occasional cease-fires. Its Slovenian title Circus Fantasticus gives a better idea of this fantasy space, with its metaphor of the circus as a mute circle of friends helping and supporting each other through their gruelling acts. It’s resistance and brotherhood, abstracted from the hateful and divisive dogs of war.
This pacifistic and humanitarian resistance finds wonderful expression in Silent Sonata’s strong use of imagery – from the balletic stand-off between the strong man and a tank, dancing and smoking, to the corpses that litter the beach the lovers cycle over. The title Silent Sonata exaggerates the formalistic silence of the film, but filled with coughing, rumbling vehicles, pained breathing and rattling coughs, Burger’s film is by no means silent. Instead, it aims for a human communication beyond words – of gestures, expression and performance that unite beyond the contentious power of words. And it’s an abstract, (fictional) space that even goes beyond death, with the mother reappearing as a ghost, a spirit living on in and around them.
Silent Sonata won’t be for everyone, a quixotic mix between popular spectacle and high-brow, high-concept art house. But with its strong visuals and a perspective on life and cinema unlike any other, it certainly is a Circus Fantasticus.
Silent Sonata is released on 9th May 2014 in the UK