The best film I’ve seen so far this year just happens to be one that pretends the last 80 years haven’t happened. I’m a big fan of silent movies, particularly ones which exemplify the avant-garde and the nebulous crossover between fine art and film – Buí±uel and Dulac, Wiene and Lang, Eisenstein and Vertov. With the birth of sound, few filmmakers whose work had links with fine art continued to let their films show this influence. There are exceptions to this rule – Jean Cocteau for one and more recently Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman in this country – but generally ‘art’ films became relegated to the niche genre of ‘experimental’ cinema.
Perhaps film art needs to be silent or at least have a less distracting soundtrack than the multi-layered cacophony that increasingly dominates modern cinema. A soundtrack negates the need for words on screen beyond the brand names of objects and signposts; however, the absorption of words through the eye rather than the ear has perhaps a greater effect on the subconscious, as the viewer has to rely solely on visual interpretation rather than cadence for the meaning of language. In the modern world where arguments are generated by the lack of a smile or a raised eyebrow in an e-mail or text message, this is something that deserves greater attention. Many sound films lose something in translation due to either the schizophrenic need for the viewer to read text at the bottom of the screen while the action progresses, or dubbing, which loses the flavour of the original intent.
There has been the occasional silent movie in recent years – the terrific slapstick comedy I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, which never got a proper release due to problems with the distribution company, and an acclaimed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (‘Hush’); there have been sound movies that used text on screen – Stille dage i Clichy (Quiet days in Clichy, 1970) and Batman (1966); but La Antena is possibly the most successful combination of visuals and text I’ve seen outside of a comic book. Ironically, since comics have recently become such a major source of inspiration for movies, it’s surprising that no one has used the text(ual) aspects of comics on screen, outside of the odd panel intro in Ang Lee’s confused Hulk adaptation.
In La Antena, even though we are dealing with a film that is self-consciously avant-garde and is bound to end up with a cult / niche following, the presence of text on screen and lack of spoken word is explained by a plot device rather than simply being part of the structure of the film. Perhaps the filmmakers were mindful of the career of Canadian director Guy Maddin, one of the few other modern proponents of silent movies, who even goes so far as using hand-cranked cameras for authenticity, and has been unable to attract an audience beyond his cult following. The world of the film is one that combines Tales of Hoffman and 1984, where a totalitarian regime has literally removed the voice of the people. When characters in this world speak, letters appear in the air in front of their faces and all the contrivances of speech are given a visual alternative – for example if one character wants to obscure the speech of another he’ll put his hand in front of the text in the air so another can’t read it. On top of this conceit, other surrealist touches are added – telephones have video screens that show the speaker’s lips in close-up (so presumably the person holding the phone can lip-read), as do loud hailers and face masks (which resemble oversized televisions). Elsewhere, the landscape itself is given a Borgesian / Gilliam-esque aspect with the topography literally made out of the pages from a book.
Visually, the film is stunning, but unlike many of the silent movies that influenced the film, the actors have the benefit of modern training and don’t have to resort to theatrical exaggeration the way their forebears might have. That said, the film isn’t perfect and some visual effects resort too heavily to artifice – the snow covering a sinister car looks a little too much like soap foam and the solid glycerine tears that form on some of the characters’ cheeks are too close to a pop video gag or an Andy Kaufman sketch. While a visual reference to Metropolis is just about reasonable in terms of historical reference, the uses of a Swastika and Star of David to represent good and evil is absurdly heavy-handed and pulls the viewer out of the meticulously formed fantasy world of the film.
These qualms aside, this is one of the bravest and most innovative films in years, one that combines the tools of the past and the latest technology to create a beguiling, timeless film.