The cuckoo calls from the well of my mind,
more echo than thought, as it fades through the wind
and flickers away to the silence beyond
like the voice, in myself, of another – John Burnside, “Insomnia in Southern Illinois.”
Beginning with the above quote from acclaimed Scottish poet John Burnside, director Pat Collins’ Silence traces the journey of Eoghan (co-writer Eoghan MacGiolla Bhríde), a sound recordist living in Berlin, as he travels back to Ireland for the first time in 15 years. He has been offered work recording landscapes where man-made sound is absent but, tellingly, his girlfriend/wife – their exact relationship is unclear – quotes to him before he leaves the line ‘And so I follow the arc of life and return to my starting place’ (she speaks the line in German).
In Ireland, Eoghan records in remote terrain but through his encounters with various characters, most of whom are people playing themselves (including writer and Irish Times columnist Michael Harding), and a gradual drawing back to his home, Donegal’s Tory Island, he begins to engage with human life again. The movie is cut through with old film stock and still images of family and community life. The origin of these images is vague in that it is never made clear whether they are of Eoghan’s own family and wider community or not. Their vagueness seems deliberate, as if they have passed into memory, providing no clear map of either what has gone or what is to come, much like how anyone’s memories of growing up get interpreted and reinterpreted.
The absence of certainty is reinforced by Eoghan’s frequent staring from windows. It’s from windows that we often engage with the outside world but it can only be a half engagement – it’s often the case that we don’t hear what is going on outside or those outside don’t see or hear us within.
Solitude is at the heart of this movie. In his book, Solitude, the English psychiatrist Anthony Storr examined this human capacity to be alone and, more broadly, the balance between interpersonal relationships and impersonal interests. In conclusion, he quoted William Wordsworth’s epic autobiographical poem, “The Prelude:”
When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.
Silence is a beautifully made movie. To master the ordinary is as difficult on film as is it in literature, but Collins has done it. Rich in its stillness, Silence is deserving of a wide audience.