Runs at Northwest Film Forum, Fri., Aug. 1–Thurs., Aug. 7. Not rated. 102 minutes.
At once cerebral film essay and unsweetened ear candy, Pere Portabella's Silence Before Bach is nearly as tough to categorize as its maker. The 78-year-old Catalan—at various times a commercial producer, anti-Franco activist, and avant-garde film artist—is known mainly, if at all, for having facilitated Luis Buñuel's blasphemous 1962 Viridiana. Silence is not quite as jocular as Viridiana (although sometimes as surreal); it's a high-toned experimental feature that eschews narrative and ponders the social history of music, creating a dialectic between sound and image as well as between a costumed 18th century and a contemporary post-national Europe. This cool, deliberate film suggests that Bach's music is the quintessence of European civilization. The structure is anecdotal: A Spanish trucker has a renaissance mural painted on his rig and talks music as he rolls through the characterless Euro-countryside. Meanwhile, down in the subway, serious young cellists occupy every seat, embracing their instruments in an unexpectedly erotic image. The picture lapses briefly into biopic—almost as a joke. A historic Leipzig church is filled with Bach's music...as well as Bach himself (Christian Brembeck) at the organ. Portabella's sense of music is most directly expressed when a church cantor observes that Bach's compositions have the power to convert secular musicians to religion. Bach's music is "the only thing that reminds us the world is not a failure," someone says—and not as a joke.