THE SILENCE BEFORE BACHNR
The Silence Before Bach begins with a player piano dancing around an empty loft. The tune is J.S. Bach’s “The Goldberg Variations,” the prolific German composer’s best-known work. This delightful whimsy is short-lived; soon, the “documentary” moves on to alternating narrative and documentary sequences which are unrelated and which add up to very little, except perhaps in the mind of the filmmaker, Surrealist artist Pere Portabella.
The title of the film underscores Portabella’s belief in the significance of the composer, a celebrated contrapuntalist, known for his mastery of the fugue, perhaps the most intellectual of all musical forms. The score of The Silence Before Bach features Bach’s fugues, as well as his organ music—if he had written only organ music, he would be famous for that alone—as well as pieces for the cello and the harpsichord. There are also two sonatas by the 19th-century German-Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn who, ironically, revived Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and cemented the mostly forgotten composer’s legacy. The score is sublime but it is not calculated to educate an audience unschooled in Bach, nor does it offer any insight for the more sophisticated classical music lover.
In true Surrealist fashion, Portabella puts an army of cellists on a subway car to play Bach, ambient sound intact. If that were not meaningless enough, he takes us on an Elbe River cruise in Dresden, the tour guide’s drivel providing voice-over narration. Dresden is where Bach wrote “The Goldberg Variations.” The documentary also includes a fictional story about a long-haul trucker who is a dedicated musician, and whose companion gives the most memorable performance of Bach in the documentary—he plays “The Goldberg Variations” on a harmonica. In a flight of deconstruction, Portabella drops a piano into the sea, but the scene provides none of the relief it presages: Afterward, The Silence Before Bach continues on its ostentatious, self-indulgent course.
Unlike François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, the structure of which is inspired by “The Goldberg Variations,” and which uses Bach’s music and Gould’s interpretation of it to illuminate both subjects, The Silence Before Bach is driven solely by the filmmaker’s prosaic associations. Portabella does not discover the composer through his music, as for instance Agnieszka Holland did Beethoven in the underrated Copying Beethoven, inspired by the filmmaker’s love of that composer’s “Gross Fugue.” Nor does Portabella construct an original cinematic aesthetic from his source material, as Marion Cajori did in the recently released biopic Chuck Close. In the end, any cinematic interpretation of another art form depends upon the creativity of the filmmaker as much as it does upon the thoughtfulness and intelligence they bring to the art they’re studying. In The Silence Before Bach, Portabella is sadly lacking on both counts.