THE SILENCE (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1998)

Certain references in this old piece pertaining to people’s ages no longer apply. Time marches on for all of us, even the filmmakers among us.

It’s a miracle that the Iranian cinema is currently one of the world’s richest. Freedom of expression, sadly, has been as discouraged by political authority there as it is by the marketplace in the United States. As is the case here, genuine film artists find themselves straightjacketed in Iran, and the 1997 parliamentary elections that gave some voice to citizen opposition to state oppression have had only the smallest impact on this. The film industry in Iran has been in the grip of the ruling authority since 1950 when laws began dictating what could or could not be shown in Iranian films; Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who came to power in a U.S.-directed coup in 1953, tightened this grip. Films could not question, much less oppose, the ruling authority in any fashion, and no adverse conditions, such as poverty, could be portrayed. The Islamic Revolution of 1979, which deposed the Shah and established a theocracy under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, intensified restrictions further. Filmmakers made films that either avoided sensitive matter or cloaked this matter in layers and layers of distractive outer garb. One of the staples of Iranian cinema became films about children that made a point of entering their world; social criticism could then be smuggled into the films, as it were, because the films didn’t seem to be about the “real,” adult world at all. On the other hand, many films about children have had no such subversive subtext. They were mere escapes into a child’s world—escapes that themselves, of course, imply a kind of social criticism, however inadvertently. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish one kind of film from the other, and the political motives of a film may crystallize when a subsequent film by the same artist is clearer or more direct in this regard. It’s also possible that a filmmaker might have shifted course. Who could imagine that Jafar Panahi, who made The White Balloon (1995), a tedious film about children from a script by Abbas Kiarostami, no less, would go on to make the brilliant film The Circle (2000), which passionately explores the oppressed condition of women in Islamic Iranian society?

Mohsen Makhmalbaf began making films in the early 1980s when he was in his twenties. His entire career, therefore, has been post-Islamic Revolution. He has been prolific; almost every year has seen the release of something he wrote or directed or, more likely, both wrote and directed. Makhmalbaf is still a young man; in his forties, he is the father of two daughters who are themselves filmmakers, Samira and Hanna, who is now 14. I haven’t yet seen anything by Hanna, but her sister, now in her twenties, is one of the world’s great film artists—someone whose Blackboards (Takhté siah, 2000) exceeds any film her father has made, including his most trenchant piece, Kandahar (2001). (Father and daughter co-authored the script of Blackboards.)

The Silence (Sokhout), a startlingly fresh and elegant work, is about a ten-year-old boy, Khorshid, who is blind. Khorshid’s father, in Russia, has abandoned him and his mother, who in order to sustain their existence fishes in the river on which the rural dwelling that includes their threadbare apartment is situated. This woman has no other choice but to rely on Khorshid’s meager income for rent. It is not enough, however, and in a few days’ time they will be evicted by the landlord, a greedy, powerful presence whom we never see except for, once, as a hand knocking at the door. A strange, elliptical film of haunting, limpid visual beauty, The Silence ends with two events: the eviction, as the mother, who is calling for her son, and her one great possession, a wall mirror, symbolic for art and inspiration, that is, humanity’s spirit, are rowed across the river, the mirror’s reflection in the water symbolically linking human spirituality and Nature; and the boy, as usual off on his own, passing forever into a life of the imagination in which he is able to orchestrate sounds in his environment—to which his blindness has made him acutely sensitive and receptive—into a finished piece, one in fact familiar to us as the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Only a fool could miss the social and political implications of such a film, and the government, not at all fooled in this regard, responded brusquely. The Silence was banned in Iran.

Unlike 12-year-old Edmund, who is also robbed of childhood and must also shoulder the burden of financially supporting his family, in Roberto Rossellini’s staggering post-World War II Germany, Year Zero (1947), Khorshid prevails against the forces arrayed against him, including poverty and adult indifference to his plight (the landlord; his employer), by accessing sharpened and sensitized inner resources that the oppression he endures has brought to the fore. Indeed, this is a film about stealing beauty from and finding inspiration in one’s surroundings, no matter the conditions that conspire to oppress and destroy. In a sense, the boy’s blindness symbolizes the oppressive conditions for which he compensates. This compensation, for him, is music—the music he can make out of sounds. His companion at work, Naderah, makes herself earrings out of twig-conjoined cherries, and Makhmalbaf, just as he gives us mesmerizing closeups of Khorshid’s head rhythmically sensitive to the sounds and the music he hears, provides closeups of her cherry-adorned face. In the meantime, Khorshid is constantly reminded by his mother of their imminent eviction (she wants him to ask his employer for a salary advance), and Nadereh, who is unsuccessful in her attempts to find money for her friend, has her own worry: a man with a gun is stopping and berating girls who, like her, aren’t wearing head scarves. This gentleman is like Khorshid’s landlord in that we never see him. And he is everywhere. The two children shift their course just to avoid him, and there he is in their path anyhow. We understand that it must be a different official performing the same function—but what better way to suggest a ubiquitous atmosphere of fundamentalist oppression? (The fact that these officials are always off-screen, hence invisible to us, deepens our own sense of this atmosphere.) When Nadereh asks him what they should now do, Khorshid succinctly tells her to walk past the gentleman, ignoring him. It’s as if the boy were casting his vote in the 1997 elections.

Khorshid’s job is as a tuner of musical instruments. He has perfect pitch—or did, at least. But lately he has been so distracted by sounds and music around him, even to the point of exiting his bus to or from work in order to follow musicians, that he has become an unreliable employee. Patrons of his boss’s shop have been complaining and returning instruments. The boss fires the boy. Nadereh, who does assorted minor chores at the shop, has a theory of why the boss is treating Khorshid so badly; he is sad, she believes, because his son was killed at war. That Nadereh surmises this shows that she also has been robbed of childhood. Indeed, she is an orphan, and one or both of her parents may have been killed by war. The only “parent” she now has is her bedeviled, unsympathetic boss, whom she tells Khorshid she fears.

Much of the film is taken up with passages that contribute nothing to plot but instead evoke Khorshid’s blind negotiation of the world in which he finds himself. Makhmalbaf repeatedly shows Khorshid lost and searching for someone or other, such as in a vast fruit and vegetable market, his small hands up and flat like antennae; when he stuffs his ears with cotton or plugs them with his fingers, thus combating the distraction of sound, he may better find himself or someone else. Rarely has a film shown so sensitively the negotiation a person must make between competing claims on his or her attention, in Khorshid’s case, ironically, between what he exaggeratedly hears and what he cannot see. In a great passage, in the woods, Khorshid accidentally drops and breaks in two Nadereh’s pocket vanity mirror. On the ground, one piece of it reflects Nadereh’s vertical image, which of course Nadereh herself (and we) can see, while the other piece reflects Khorshid’s horizontal image, which Nadereh (and we) see, but which, if he weren’t blind, Khorshid, who is perpendicular to Nadereh, would see as a vertical image—the way Nadereh sees her own image. It’s a broken world in which, in different ways and ways that coincide, Khorshid and Nadereh are denied their individuality, their reality as human beings. Khorshid, little as he is, is precisely a hero because he doesn’t accept this denial of his right to personal freedom. He will make his image whole some other way, on his own terms. By her refusal to wear a head scarf, Nadereh is nodding to the future. (Neither do the schoolgirls whom Khorshid befriends on a bus wear the head cover that Islam prescribes for females in public.) Khorshid’s whole existence, rooted in the present of his imagination, nods to this future.

The Silence is visually bewitching, especially out in Nature, especially in long-shots that find water below reflecting trees and sky above. (The film is full of mirror images.) There is a massive wall sculpture (an outdoor mural that’s sculpted rather than painted), and in one wonderful shot Khorshid has found his way into the large lap of its maternal figure. The film’s color cinematographer is Ebrahim Ghafouri. There is nothing in the film to which he doesn’t significantly contribute. However, just as extraordinary is the soundtrack, which enables us to hear what Khorshid hears, including the buzzing difference between a bee that haunts dung hills and “bad flowers” and Khorshid’s pet bee, which comes and goes into his room and pollinates the gorgeous flowers with which Nadereh decorates herself.

Khorshid, who is played by Tahmineh Normatova, is the single most beautiful young boy I have seen in a movie or anyplace else. A beautiful blind boy? How does Makhmalbaf, then, avoid pathos? (Not a scrap of it is attached to Khorshid.) First, there is the boy’s stubborn independence and individuality, his existence outside any acceptance by him of pity or anyone’s proffering it. Secondly, Normatova is (under Makhmalbaf’s guidance) a superb actor, one who plays the character cleanly, without sentimentality, rather than playing on our emotions.

The Silence won three prizes at Venice.

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One thought on “THE SILENCE (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1998)

  1. Thank you for your views on this film. I am taking a class on Himalayan languages, and this film is performed in Tajik. I didn’t get a lot of what was going on, but, like usual, I didn’t know the background of the recent political history of the region (my usual problem with foreign films). Now that I’ve read your commentary, I can get more of it– and the seemingly random insertion of Khorshid running through the rain makes more sense too. My only question left now, is that “aren’t instruments tuned pretty much every time you play?”
    :) The Silence is a good film, and now I can see what’s going on with it.

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