I like silence. More than that, I’m interested in silence. I enjoy listening to experimental works that toy with how silence can be manipulated, and have read books about the nature of silence. Whether it can exist in any complete sense. How perceived silence affects our reaction to the sounds around it. How, like music, it can be used to affect a mood or convey a feeling. Negative spaces have always intrigued me. So the prospect of Pat Collins’ film – which may sound laughable to some – genuinely piqued my interest. Here, for 88 minutes, we follow sound recordist Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride as he journeys to remote locations in Ireland to attempt to record the absence of human activity. In a world that has grown increasingly busy with noise and the chatter of information, can it’s absence still be appreciated – or even found?
From a scattering of publicity stills (like the one above) and a handful of favourable reviews, I came to anticipate (don’t laugh) a quiet, meditative experience, one which took the subject of silence and countered it with some exquisite photography. In a sense, that’s what I got. But really, I got so much less than that. For Collins’ film squanders its initial conceit, favouring an astonishingly banal descent into, quite frankly, I’m not sure what. Silence aims for the profound, but misses it by about a continent. It’s with heartfelt regret that I’m calling it; Silence may well be the most pointless film I’ve ever seen.
But not without merit. Let’s talk about the good here for a moment. Eoghan is a semi-interesting subject. A quiet (that word again), thoughtful, introspective man. He apparently works alone (save for the camera crew of course), living a solitary existence, obviously wholly involved in his work. He’s a sympathetic fellow who is somewhat charismatic to watch; his soulful eyes glinting from behind the bristles of his well-bearded face.
It transpires that his journey to Ireland is in fact a journey home, and his reunion with the soil of his mother country is captured beautifully by cinematographer Richard Kendrick, who gently frames one stately composition after another, all of it assembled at a measured pace by editor Tadhg O’Sullivan. In fact, all technical aspects here are superb, not least (as one would expect) the sound design. An atmosphere of isolation and lamentation is sustained through a mix of low drones and wildlife sounds that dapple around the viewer, the images conjuring a feeling of Ireland’s past suspended in the present. Tumbled down buildings and fields of heather existing outside of time, troubled only by the wind.
The problem is that Eoghan’s search for silence disappears as swiftly as the shadow of a cloud cast over a field. Save for ruminations with a local whom he meets out in the wilderness, the supposed central topic of Collins’ film is dropped in favour of, well, nothing much. Eoghan visits isolated places, talks to locals, and… that’s it. Silence is akin to watching someone going on a hike by themselves. For days. He climbs on some rocks. He stands in the rain. He talks to a boy in their native tongue. He walks by a car. Suddenly, that 88 minutes sounds like an even bigger ask.
Through all of this a sense is given of a man reconnecting with his roots, as well as a rueful lament for elements of Ireland’s rich heritage which are falling by the wayside, but, quite honestly, it’s all so soporific, so subdued, that any sense of significance simply dissolves. Silence doesn’t end up serving any purpose whatsoever. If you want to feel introspective and contemplative, go for a walk yourself. Meditate somewhere nice. Watching somebody else do these things… It offers next to no stimuli or reward.
I really ought to go on. I don’t have a set word limit, but there’s an approximate length I usually like to get to, and usually fill easily, but there’s so little to say about this film. I’m sure everyone involved in its production is proud of it, but really, ironically, there’s just nothing left to discuss. I have great patience for films like this, and an interest in the thoughtfulness they aim to achieve. But I have limits. Silence bored me senseless. Mainly I thought about how I was a bit hungry, then started trying to mentally catalogue my recent outgoings. As for the film, if there was a further point, I obviously missed it completely. Aimless in the extreme, this is unfortunately a baffling endurance test that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.