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One of the best strands of the LA Film Festival is the “Films That Got Away”, featuring titles of recent vintage whose chance for US theatrical distribution seems to have passed. Particularly valuable this year is the presentation of European festival success Die Stille vor Bach, not least since aged Catalan director Pere Portabella has declared that he will never release his films on DVD.

The film is composed of various vignettes, mostly unconnected apart from the music of Bach. We hear it played on piano, church organ, harmonica, harpsichord and in a nicely surreal reverse tracking shot (which must have been pretty tricky) on a gradually-revealed subway car full of cellists. Portabella is not precious about the music: we first see it coming out of a player piano, and throughout the film it will play against the sounds rain storm, telephone and the domestic clatter of dropped dishes, and as a cacophony of selections performed simultaneously in a piano showroom.

Portabella is an old crony of Buñuel’s (he produced Viridiana) and the film is peppered with such gently surreal touches, from playful cuts between episodes, via a frankly mysterious silent shot of an upright piano being dropped into the ocean, to a less successful sequence of a dressage horse “dancing” to the music. The film culminates with a series of abstractions, beautifully photographed, roaming in close-up through the serried ranks of organ pipes while the music is strangely distorted as though a ring modulator (perhaps the Bach of the future).

The photography (by Tomàs Pladevall) is especially lovely in the period domestic interiors – Bach introduces himself to the camera in the church of St Thomas in Leipzig where he was cantor, and takes us through a little lesson in harmony and tension, repeated with emphasis on sensitivity and delicacy at home as he instructs his son. This is echoed in the words of the fantastically enthusiastic butcher (discussing roasting meat, in fact) from whom famously, though perhaps apocryphally, Mendlessohn purchases endless cuts for the original pages of the St Matthew Passion in which they are wrapped. Elsewhere, we are in present day Leipzig where a tour guide dressed as Bach fills us in on a little history, or on a tourist boat on the Elba for some more background information. As though to emphasis the universality of the music, we are early on presented with a truck-driver discussing his love of chamber music in a motorway service station, later playing a lonely bassoon in his motel room, and finally arriving at a high-end music shop where the owner discusses the problems of getting a baby grand into a third floor duplex.

The pleasure people get from the music of Bach is emphasised in part by all the trouble they go to. A piano tuner laboriously goes about his work at the start of the film, as though to prepare us as well as the instrument; Bach’s ink-stained fingers carefully draw the required multitude of staves across a virgin page; his modern-day interpreter ritually dons his costume; and the player piano and the pipe organ display their complex workings with pride.

The other major strand is one of godliness, stemming from Bach’s own faith and convictions about the inspiration and purpose of his work: it is (somewhat archly) maintained that the music of Bach immeasurably enhances the glory God, without whom the latter would be “third-rate”, and the current cantor of St Thomas (the “present-day Bach” as he is described, surely with a touch of wry Catalan ambivalence) relates that many of the non-believers in his choir ask to be baptised after having performed Bach’s music for some time – the silence before Bach is imagined as a dark, godless place.

The film itself opens in silence, the camera prowling around an empty white gallery space as though to declare not only that before the Bach there is nothing, but also that the space will soon be filled with “art” (confirmed by the European art-film staple of superfluous naked lady, taking a shower). It makes no bones about its unconventional structure and lack of narrative, which place it closer to poetry or meditation; theses are touched upon and universality suggested more than represented, but the main pleasure is to revel in the beauty of the music. As such, one must allow the film to sweep one along or not, but with such glorious sounds on display, who can resist?

Rating 7.89/10

See the trailer and more on the official site

image: medula films