Sodium streetlights buzz. Antennas hum. Insects chirrup — or is that the bleeping of some faraway, half-dreamt electronic machine? The world of Christos Passalis’ sensitive, surreal, slow-reveal “Silence 6-9” is quiet, but its silences are full of strange, prophetic noise, if you just listen hard enough. After a beginning unmistakably located deep within the familiarly bizarro, alien reaches of the Greek Weird Wave aesthetic, Passalis’ solo directorial debut gradually distinguishes itself by moving to a more human and humane place, where the singing in the wires and the voices calling through the whine make pining Wichita linemen out of all its lonesome, liminal inhabitants.
A stranger arrives in a very strange town. It’s just after nightfall, in those glimmering, fading few hours between dusk and midnight that best suit Giorgos Karvelas’s clinical yet crepuscular cinematography. Aris — played by Passalis himself — is walking down a deserted, unkempt highway when two things happen, in the way most things happen here: slowly, dispassionately and with maximum cryptic mileage. He glances up to see a pair of hotel chambermaids looking down on him from an overpass. Then, turning away from them, he encounters a dying bird, which he is checking out when a woman materializes at his elbow.
Anna (played by the indispensable Angeliki Papoulia, in a reunion with “Dogtooth” co-star Passalis) is another newcomer to this faintly sinister town, and the only other guest in its shuttered, shadowy hotel (just one of the elements here that is reminiscent of the excellent second season of “The Leftovers”). There’s an instant undercurrent of fellowship between the two strangers, and they walk together, in what will become a regular nighttime ritual, as neither is much good at sleeping.
Aris is in town for a job maintaining the local antenna array, which is designed to pick up fuzzy fragmentary messages from people who have inexplicably disappeared from their loved ones’ lives. Between the hours of six and nine, the town mandates silence, to reduce interference as these crackly pleas and pledges from beyond are recorded onto cassette tapes – Márton Ágh’s clever production design makes a coherent if willfully illogical alternate reality out of such analog tech.
Anna is also here for work, though hers is odder still. She is hired to double as one bereft, melodica-playing man’s disappeared wife — studying her cassettes, learning her mannerisms — and then to perform as her at a show, alongside other such doubles. It’s little bit art installation, a little bit theatre piece and a whole lot peep show, complete with moaning men masturbating joylessly to these uncanny-valley facsimiles of their vanished partners.
These men are trapped in a limbo of never letting go, of putting their lives on hold awaiting the miraculous return the tapes so often promise. Consequently, there’s a rising wave of rebellion against the whole system, led by a mayoral candidate running a scrappy campaign on a “No More Cassettes” platform. Aris and Anna are first amused and then intrigued by the local politics. But they are also distracted by their growing closeness, which is cradled in the atonal, synthy melancholy of Yiannis Loukos and Antonis Georgou’s score, and beautifully played by both actors as a practically tangible ache. Passalis’ script, co-written with Eleni Vergeti, is terse, yet there are whole dialogues of chemistry going on in the exchanges between his kind, crinkling eyes and her open, anxious gaze.
Despite the convincing, rather touching love story, there is a torpor to these early stretches which can get a little frustrating — and a limit to how much unmoored oddness one can take. But at just that limit, a few little clues are dropped, hinting at the film’s wider universe and accounting for, if never explaining, some of its echoing absurdities. In the resemblance of a nurse’s uniform to that of a hotel maid, or in the spontaneous appearance of a cut on Anna’s chapped lip, or in the more uncanny clicks and burrs introduced into Nikos Exarhos, Persefoni Miliou and Kostas Varympopiotis’s superbly evocative soundscape, this peculiar, hermetic world is suddenly connected to a much more recognizable one.
Still, Passalis has wisdom enough to let his mystery remain somewhat mysterious, with many allusions and darkly comic details existing — appropriately for a film that hovers between wakefulness and dream — at the very edge of comprehension. A serious comment elicits an inappropriate giggle. A patient’s breathing changes and a hotel bedroom fills with dirt. It’s as though there’s been a short circuit in the wires connecting stimulus to response, like synapses firing erratically, mixing dream with myth and memory. Just like those plaintive messages that have to travel great distances and pass through impassable barriers, thoughts and ideas get garbled through transmission. “Silence 6-9″‘s affecting, romantic conclusion wants us to believe that love, if strong and patient and true enough, has a hope of surviving the journey intact.
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