Director: Janez Burger
Cast: Leon Lucev, Ravil Sultanov, Pauliina Rasanen
Watch Silent Sonata online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / TalkTalk TV / iTunes
Silent Sonata was originally called Circus Fantasticus is its home country of Slovenia. A wordless, 77-minute piece, it centres around a man whose home and family have been torn apart by war. Grieving and armed, he awaits another attack. Instead, his world is upended by a truck filled with travelling performers: the Circus Fantasticus.
It opens with the man (Lucev, credited as “Father”) crying for his murdered wife in a half-standing, desolate home. He tries to protect his children from the sight while he prepares for the war to further ruin his life. This portion suits its new, international title: it’s slow, sad and inescapably predictable. A silent film revolving around the horrors of war, no matter how well shot, is going to struggle. Burger may have had such intentions in mind, hoping to contrast with what follows, but the inevitability of the viewer’s reaction mirrors that of the war itself; a movie that runs a little over an hour cannot afford to spend 10 minutes acting pretentious in order to deceive the viewer of what is to come.
Soon, though, the curtain is drawn back. The performers begin to perform and Burger and his cast produce an odd, surreal and crisply joyful series of events. From here on out, Silent Sonata is no longer a crude experiment of muteness; it manages to rise up from the first few scenes to tackle the subject of war, donning a red nose, breathing fire and presenting a drumroll-worthy balancing act.
Building up to a full-performance finale, their happiness radiates through the terror and silence. Expertly choreographed and timed, Silent Sonata begins to brandish a serious discussion regarding the nature of fun. This is never more obvious than when a strongman and a fire-breather face off against a tank by quickly infecting it with their own eccentric brand of amusement. This is the stand-out scene within Burger’s piece; it pairs the bizarre with the tragic, ensuring a smirk from every member of every audience.
Dreamlike and entertaining, the Circus Fantasticus is what makes Silent Sonata more than a potentially tedious, blandly depressing piece on the losses of a lonely man. The Circus arrive with a glint in their eye and perform close-up magic with cigarettes to amuse children in the midst of a very real war. Had Burger managed to shake the inexpert opening, this could have constructed a fascinating balance of discussion and elation without a hangover of misplaced gimmicks. If only Silent Sonata were more like the Circus Fantasticus, it would have been less of a mourning violin and more of a dancing accordion.