The Naked Island
In Kaneto Shindô’s The Naked Island, a family inhabits a barren island where there is no water and the crops rot before their eyes. Every day they venture to the neighboring town to fill their buckets. Shindô makes us feel the weight of their struggle like the yokes that practically break their backs. Things become increasingly difficult when the eldest son falls ill. There are no words or distractions from their plight — just minimal music and environmental noise, leaving us with pure, beautifully restrained cinema about the human experience.
Kenneth Anger delivers a heady mix of homoerotic bikers (non-actors and real motorcyclists), 1950’s nostalgia, early pop music, fetishism, chaos, and humor in his 1963 experimental opus, Scorpio Rising. What it lacks in dialogue, it makes up in a collage of image and sound (a style later adopted by directors such as Martin Scorsese) that mythologizes and documents the counterculture.
In the City of Sylvia
Cinema was made for movies like José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia. An artist returns to France in search of a woman he met years earlier. He spots her outside a café and follows her through the city streets. It isn’t the narrative or script that compels us to follow them. The film is virtually dialogue-free. We’re drawn to their story through an enchanting series of impressions, marked by naturalistic sound (wind through book pages and everyday ambient noise) and sensuous visuals.
Jan Svankmajer has never been a filmmaker in the traditional sense. There is no sequential timeline, plot, or script to lead us along the Czech director’s surreal, bizarre path. Svankmajer’s world is full of texture, his decisions are purely aesthetic, and sound is crucial. The strange union of live-action actors, stop-motion creatures, and unsettling imagery heightens Svankmajer’s visceral remake of Alice in Wonderland. Svankmajer doesn’t need to dazzle us with words that mimic Lewis Carroll’s peculiar, whimsical writing style in Alice. His evocative use of sound and visuals dizzies on its own.
Two estranged sisters and a young boy travel through an unfamiliar city, seemingly on the brink of war. They take cover in a hotel. Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) is the impulsive one. The sisters’ unexplained history, an implied inappropriate relationship, also made her cruel and resentful. Ester (Ingrid Thulin) has always controlled the relationship, but now she is dying and desperate for her sister’s love. Their emotional divide grows, emphasized further by long stretches of silence and their inability to communicate in a foreign land full of strangers. Director Ingmar Bergman offers very little dialogue, but the depth of the sisters’ alienation is felt through his striking visuals, slow pacing, and sparseness.
We recently included Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï on our list of European cinema’s best smoking scenes, due to the film’s opening shot of Alain Delon smoking in silence for several minutes. Melville is known for his spare elegance. His moody characters aren’t talkers, the director has an economical eye, and although his lead players are sophisticated and stylish, there is nothing excessive about them. In his review of Melville’s influential hitman classic, Roger Ebert explains this approach further:
“There is nothing absolutely original in Le Samourai except for the handling of the material. Melville pares down and leaves out. He disdains artificial action sequences and manufactured payoffs. He drains the color from his screen and the dialogue from his characters. At the end, there is a scene that cries out (in Hollywood terms, anyway) for a last dramatic enigmatic statement, but Melville gives us banalities and then silence. He has been able to keep constantly in mind his hero’s chief business.”
Jean-Jacques Annaud’s L’Ours, or The Bear, tells the tale of an orphaned cub (a real female bear named Douce) who struggles to survive in the wilds of 19th-century British Columbia. A wounded Grizzly (a real Kodiak named Bart) takes the cub in his care, but life isn’t easy with two hunters on their trail. The story is adapted from a novel by James Oliver Curwood. He was a reformed hunter, which is evident in the story’s underlying theme of redemption. There are few words uttered in Annaud’s film, as the power of nature and emotional realizations overwhelm the senses.
Anything by Jacques Tati
From the maze of modernity in Playtime to the quiet bourgeoisie satire of Mon oncle, legendary French director Jacques Tati is known for his dialogue-free films where conversations and the whir of everyday life are treated like background noise. It’s said that on occasion, Tati requested that no subtitles accompany his movies, wanting audiences to rely purely on the sights and sounds. Visual comedy was important to Tati, whose work was similar to the silent cinema masters à la Buster Keaton. His minimalist approach to dialogue extended behind the scenes as well. Tati didn’t use a shooting script when filming Mon oncle. In an interview with Bert Cardullo, Tati told the writer that he committed the film to memory and edited as he was shooting.
An ex-con embarks on a river journey to find his daughter. The jungle provides the mysterious man with sustenance, but also adds to the quiet menace that looms throughout Lisandro Alonso’s elliptical slow-burner — an enigmatic film with almost no dialogue. Los muertos will leave you with more questions than answers, but Alonso expertly balances meditative beauty, stark naturalism, and silent horror.
The Red Balloon
The classics are classics for a reason.