“The Silence” - Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1998)

Writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s shifting artistic intentions have always attracted scrutiny. The former teenage Islamist militant began making films in his twenties, shortly after his release from prison during the 1979 Iranian revolution.  These initial films were “thinly disguised religious proselytizing” [1]. In a few years, though, he shifted his attention to general social issues, and later, in the 1990s, he turned to more poetic and Sufi-inspired themes. (However, some critics, e.g. [2], see this later turn as only a cover to avoid state censorship and that Makhmbalbaf continued to be primarily concerned with general social issues.)  So Makhmalbaf’s expressive turning reflected his withdrawal from his initial passionate embrace of rigid Islamist dogma and movement towards his eventual support of the more liberal Iranian Green Movement in 2009.  And of course that makes him fascinating to many observers.  But it wasn’t just a thematic shifting, there was a stylistic shifting, too.  By the time he made Gabbeh (1996) and The Silence (Sokout, 1998), Makhmalbaf was so imbued with Sufic evocations that he had “largely abandoned traditional narrative” [3].  This is what makes The Silence, in particular, a unique and somewhat maddening work [4].  With Makhmalbaf’s abandonment of traditional cinematic narrative, the viewer is left with the challenge of weaving together and making sense of what is presented on screen.

The narrative material in the film, such as it is, is set in Tajikistan and concerns an impoverished 10-year-old boy who is blind.  The boy, Khorshid (played by Tahmineh Normatova), lives alone with his mother (Goibibi Ziadolahyeva), since his father abandoned the family some time earlier.  Their only source of income is Khorshid’s job at a local musical instrument shop and factory where he tunes stringed instruments. 

Equally important in the story is the orphan Nadereh (Nadereh Abdelahyeva), who is a couple of years older than Khorshid and who is looked after by the music shop’s owner.  Because of Khorshid’s blindness, Nadereh must escort Khorshid back and forth every day from the bus terminus to the shop.  She also assists Khorshid with his work, and the two of them are good friends.

Much of what transpires is shown in little vignettes involving Khorshid and Nadereh, and this is presented from their perspectives by showing them in tight closeups or tracking shots in medium closeup.  Since Khorshid is blind, his encounter with the world is through sounds, and the film’s sound track is full of crisp and precise sounds from the world around the two of them. The resulting cinematic perspective is what gives the film an interior feeling that may suggest Sufic resonance with the unfathomably rich world that is always around us, and it is one of the film’s primary virtues.  Incidentally, The Silence was the first Makhmalbaf film that included production credits for all his family members who went on to direct their own films – his wife, Marzieh Meshkini; and his two daughters, Samira Makhmalbaf and Hana Makhmalbaf.

At the beginning of the film, Khorshid’s mother tells him that their landlord is about to evict them if they don’t pay their overdue rent, and they need an advance on Khorshid’s meager salary.  But Khorshid has a problem – his acute sense of hearing leads to him becoming entranced by ambient sounds and music.  In fact we soon learn that his hearing is so sharp that can distinguish between two types of bees – those that gather nectar from flowers and those that land on dung – simply by the subtle differences in their buzzing noises.  His main difficulty is that he becomes attracted by enticing sounds and wanders off in their direction by “following his ears”.  This causes him to be late for work.   So Nadereh gives him some cotton to put in his ears when he rides the bus in order that he not get distracted by enchanting sounds along the way.

Among the vignettes that I liked are the following:
  • Early on in the story Nadereh is guiding Khorshid to work and leads him through the crowded bazaar.  Khorshid becomes distracted by the music from a man carrying a cassette player and follows him without Nadereh noticing.  When Nadereh looks around and notices that Khorshid is missing, her task of finding the boy in the huge, crowded bazaar appears to be hopeless.  But she decides to imitate Khorshid by closing her eyes and following her own ears, heading in the direction of whatever enticing music she hears.  Eventually she finds Khorshid this way.
     
  • On one occasion in the music shop, Nadereh listens to the sound of Khorshid strumming on a tar instrument and begins dancing to the music.  She has decorated her fingernails with flower petals, and she shows them off while she dances.
     
  • Sometimes Khorshid walks through a metalworks section of the bazaar, and he comes to love the sound of the craftsmen hammering on copper kettles and farm tools.  He is particularly enthralled by the rhythmic sound of “ba-ba-ba-BAM”, which he hears everywhere – even when someone knocks on the door.  So he asks the artisans to hammer according to that rhythm, which they obligingly do for him.  (On another occasion Khorshid also tells Nadereh about his fascination with the “ba-ba-ba-BAM” rhythm.)
     
  • One time Nadereh takes Khorshid to the river that flows by their town and tells him about her mirror and how it reflects images.  Khorshid is given the mirror to hold, but he drops it, and it breaks into two pieces.  In one piece we can see the reflection of Nadereh’s face, and in the other piece we see Khorshid’s face.
Of course when Khorshid is riding on he bus, he cannot always resist the temptation to remove his cotton earplugs when he suspects music is being played.  One time he does this when a particularly adept tar-playing gypsy is riding on the bus, and Khorshid can’t help following the musician when he gets off the bus.  After some effort, Khorshid finds the gypsy, who takes Khorshid to his clan’s camp by the riverside.   Khorshid asks the gypsy for some money that he can give to his landlord, but the gypsy tells him he has no money.  All the gypsy he can do is play music for the landlord, and, after all, he says, “everyone likes music”.

The end of the movie does not seem to have a resolution in any conventional sense.  The landlord has evidently evicted Khorshid’s mother from their home, and Khorshid has been fired from his job.  At the very end, Khorshid says he is going far away and tells the gypsy musicians to play the “horses gallop” music.  Then he runs off into the metalworks bazaar and begins orchestrating all the artisans there to begin beating in unison to his “ba-ba-ba-BAM” instructions.  As he does so, he throws off his shirt, and a mysterious heavenly light beams down on him from above that illuminates Khorshid’s orchestral conducting.  The music from the hammering metalworkers morphs into a folk-instrumental version of Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” (the opening rhythm of which is “ba-ba-ba-BAM”) as the film ends.

Even though there does not seem to be a narrative progression in the film, there are some themes worth mentioning that relate to Sufism – mirrors, music, and femininity.
  • Mirrors.  The mirror is an important symbol and metaphor in Sufi poetry [5].  In particular, Makhmalbaf once remarked that Rumi said “truth is a mirror in the hand of God that has been broken into pieces, and everyone picks up one piece and says I’ve got the whole truth, but the whole truth is in the mirror” [6].  This is metaphorically suggested when Khorshid and Nadereh each pick up the broken mirror fragment that reflects their own image.  Also, at the end of the film after Khorshid’s mother has been evicted from their home, she is seen being rowed across the river with her prized possession: a large wall mirror, which is shown reflecting the sun’s image.
  • Music.  There are some elements concerning music in this film that come directly from Makhmalbaf’s own experiences.  When he was a child, his religiously conservative grandmother would “make him put his fingers in his ears to avoid hearing the 'evil' music in the streets” [7]. In addition his earliest recollection of Western music was of the first four notes (“ba-ba-ba-BAM”) of Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” [8]. So perhaps Makhmalbaf associated Beethoven’s famous work with the universality of music – the idea that music transcends the particulars of life’s circumstances and can help elevate one to a holy resonance. 

    The film has another direct reference to Rumi in this connection.  It is said that Rumi was walking in the goldsmiths’ bazaar one day, and he became so entranced by their rhythmic hammer beating that he began whirling for several hours right there in the bazaar [9]. So Khorshid’s orchestration of the metalsmiths’ hammering alludes to this parable.
  • Femininity. The image of femininity is pervasive in the film, and in fact it is a common feature in many of Makhmalbaf’s films.  This portrayal of femininity has nothing to do with sensuality, but instead evokes something more ethereal and innocent. Khorshid meets many young (and innocent) girls at the food market selling bread and fruit.  There are also many very feminine young women traveling by themselves on the bus when he goes to work.  None of these women are hidden behind hijabs, and indeed Nadereh does not even wear a head scarf (although at one point she is wary of a man she sees on the street bullying girls to don head scarves).  In fact Nadereh’s innocent femininity is a key visual motif in the film, and a considerable amount of screen time is dedicated to displaying it.

    But it is not just Nadereh’s femininity that is highlighted.  The principal role of Khorshid is played by Tahmineh Normatova, who is actually a girl!  So all the main players in the film are ultimately of this almost mystical feminine sublimity.
Thus we can say that The Silence is full of Sufi reverie, from its sonorous intonations to its vivid imagery.  But the lack of a narrative flow is a serious deficiency.  It is not enough just to provide a set of arresting images and ask the viewer to put together his or her own narrative (or even artistic construction) out of them. 

Makhmalbaf was evidently influenced and inspired by the Russian Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov.  Indeed Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh appears to be closely modeled after Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969) [10].  And by comparing those two films, one can see the great difference between Parajanov’s mystical artistry and Makhmalbaf’s haphazard and more schematic constructions.  Here in The Silence, too, one feels there are meaningless lapses that seem to be only distractions and disrupt the flow.  Even so, the film does have its moments, especially just watching Nadereh and Khorshid making their way through and connecting with the world around them.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Neil Macfarquhar, “An Unlikely Auteur From Iran”, The New York Times, (8 June  1997).  
  2. Dennis Grunes, “THE SILENCE (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1998)”, Dennis Grunes, (23 February 2007).  
  3. Neil Macfarquhar, op. cit.
  4. Ian Johnston, “The Silence”, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, (6 February 2006).   
  5. John Renard, Historical Dictionary of Sufism, Scarecrow Press, (2006), p. 158.
  6. Lloyd Ridgeon, “Listening for an ’Authentic’ Iran: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Film, ‘The Silence’ (Sokut)”, Iranian Intellectuals: 1997-2007, (Lloyd Ridgeon, ed.), Routledge (2013), p. 148.
  7. Scott Tobias, “The Silence”, The Onion A. V. Club, (29 March 2002).   
  8. Ibid.
  9. Lloyd Ridgeon, op. cit., p. 139.
  10. James Steffen, The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov, University of Wisconsin Press, (2013), p. 250.

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