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Originally published Friday, August 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"The Silence Before Bach": captivating interludes inspired by Bach

Movie review: "The Silence Before Bach" is a challenging yet beautiful series of vignettes blending enigmatic drama and visual poetry into non-narrative sequences that explore the mystical influence of composer J.S. Bach.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"The Silence Before Bach," with Àlex Brendemühl, Féodor Atkine, Christian Brembeck, Daniel Ligorio. Directed by Pere Portabella, from a screenplay by Portabella, Carles Santos and Xavier Alberti. 102 minutes. Not rated; suitable for mature audiences. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

There's an exquisite visual counterpoint behind the seemingly random series of vignettes that bind Catalan auteur Pere Portabella's "The Silence of Bach," a non-narrative ode to the mystical joy of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The film opens in silence as the camera roams an empty exhibition space, which soon echoes with Bach's "Goldberg Variations." The music is coming from a trim player piano, its mechanical guts writhing as it maneuvers robotically forward in pursuit of the camera that sought it out. This could suggest that Bach's work is taking an active role in our quest to find the soul of the music. It could also be merely the first in a sequence of haunting images committed to film by a playful avant-gardist.

Bach's life and influence are represented in deliberately haphazard montages that are as freewheeling as they are captivating. An actor portraying the composer guides us through his creative process, or is glimpsed in the tableau of an ordinary afternoon at his home in 18th-century Leipzig. Later, an older man goes about his own domestic routine before donning a silk blouse and powdered wig and taking Leipzig's 21st-century tram to his job entertaining tourists in-character as Bach.

The action crosses countries as well as centuries to peer at the mundane routine of a bassoon-playing truck driver in Spain and his long-haul partner, who passes the miles playing Bach on harmonica. A few of these languorous sequences have hints of dramatic arc, but they never suffer the burden of having to tell a story. The character sketches are punctuated with unconnected bits of visual poetry that are stunning in their beauty or simplicity and point to the innate spirituality of Bach's music.

Descending into the subway, the camera gingerly backs through a car filled with young cellists, their interpretation of Bach's "Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude" colliding with the hissing and screeching of the train. The player piano returns in the finale and the camera simply stares at the hypnotic representation of the complex music as intricate lines and dots mapping Bach's "Magnificat" roll through the mechanism.

Portabella is known primarily as producer of Luis Buñuel's "Viridiana" (1962), but his own avant-garde work has recently received wider attention. The engaging enigma of "The Silence Before Bach" demonstrates an artistic wisdom that is as satisfying as it is challenging.

Ted Fry:

tedfry@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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