A charming slice of magical realism, Janez Burger’s Silent Sonata (2010) comes cartwheeling into UK cinemas this week having first screened at the 2011 Rotterdam Film Festival. The narrative concerns a grieving family caught in the middle of an unnamed Eastern European conflict, as well as their chance crossing of paths with the travelling Circus Fantasticus. This band of performers alleviate the suffering – both of the family and, extrapolated, the nation – with a strain of farcical comedy sure to raise a smile from even the most wary viewers. Whilst not entirely successful, it offers a dose of enchanting whimsy to soothe the troubled soul, and all without uttering a word.
After a series of opening tableau’s introduce the film’s oddball cast, the action shifts to a desolate Balkan landscape in which a farmer (Leon Lucev) finds his wife’s body amongst the debris. As he and his children (Devi Bragalini, Luna Mijovic) mourn, a circus pitches up next to their isolated home. Initially reticent to have strangers around, the farmer gradually warms to these nomadic neighbours and their ways, slowly allowing them to help his family heal. Burger and cinematographer Divis Marek shoot the opening in a washed-out colour palette, synonymous with Eastern European drama. It’s almost into another movie that the circus rolls – and even that arrival is framed by a terrible tension that the approaching wagons, viewed down the barrel of the farmer’s rifle, will be full of soldiers.
The circus troupe arrive in a splash of colour, and it’s through the tone, camera movement and a cohort of enjoyable performances that the world transforms in their presence. Burger’s film is a wordless ode to the human spirit, the entertainers’ joy at living in even the direst circumstances shining a vibrant light into the farmhouse. As their oldest member, the aging ringmaster (René Bazinet), splutters his way towards a final breath, the spectre of death remains both literally and figuratively present. Although the notion of the circus as a straightforward allegory for vitality and resolve feels a little ungainly, it’s probably the most accurate reading of Silent Sonata’s admirable intentions.
Luckily, the more surreal moments and the lack of dialogue manage to undercut any rising sense of awkwardness. A prime example is a scene that can only be described as a dance-off between a strongman and an army tank, that somehow manages to not only work, but feel perfectly appropriate. Equally, a sojourn to the nearby beach for the farmer’s daughter and boy from the circus provides a touching getaway. By no means perfect, Burger’s Silent Sonata is an oddly mesmerising piece of performance art. If you’re feeling a little glum, an absurd and uplifting trip to the Circus Fantasticus is just what the doctor ordered.