Dobromir Dymecki and Agnieszka Zulewska in Silent Land (2021)
This review contains spoilers.
“It’s broken.” The first line uttered in Aga Woszczynska’s stirring feature debut, Silent Land, holds a clear mirror to a Polish couple’s disintegrating relationship. As the film opens, Anna (Agnieszka Zulewska) and Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) float into the frames of a beautiful holiday rental in Italy. They meddle with household fixtures that need repairing, as though these items have the audacity not to work perfectly for their idyllic vacation. Beyond their temporary interior villa is a bigger problem: the garden swimming pool is empty, and they’ve paid for a house with a pool. Despite the island struggling with drought, Anna and Adam insist their Italian host hire a worker to repair the situation. All the while, the sound of the sea and its picturesque setting fill a backdrop. With confident direction, Woszczynska paints a picture of eerie stillness. Quiet moments of the couple introduce a feeling of serenity, but the more Silent Land lingers on calmness, the clearer it becomes that Woszczynska is summoning a sense of dread. As Anna and Adam wait precisely for the pool repairman to fix a problem they’ve taken so personally, the waves of the sea crash in the distance. Silent Land is a powerfully observed drama of a relationship’s unpredictable nature and unsettling instincts.
The effectiveness of a steady buildup is on full force in Silent Land. Amidst the feeling that unpleasantness is around the corner, the story plays on ambiguity and strikes without heavy warning. But signs are stitched in the moments left unspoken. The quietest moments of Woszczynska’s feature debut are often the loudest, and the ones that leave the most behind to ruminate on. Silent Land exposes the worn out threads of a couple’s seemingly idyllic foundation, and how a single incident unravels their moral compasses. Anna and Adam paint an ambiguous picture of their intentionality from the start; it is through their interactions with others that the couple are faced with each other’s true colours. The most revealing of interactions lies between the two of them and the pool worker Rahim (Ibrahim Keshk). The way in which his character is treated on screen is an unsettling reflection of how the couple sees him: as a nuisance, a threat, a violation of their tranquility.
Though not outwardly spoken, the director and actors convey strong emotions in subtle moments. Whether it be Adam setting an alarm before leaving the house, or Anna making no effort to address the language barrier when Rahim is looking for a hose to fill the pool. There is no real introduction between these characters, just a silent expectation that he is there to do a job, and simply does not exist to them beyond that role. The overall dismissal of him simmers, and creates an emotional punch in the gut after watching him suffer from a poolside accident while the couple are nowhere to be seen. The suddenness of it, the wave of sadness from not getting a chance to know the character, and the anger from blatant nonchalance surrounding the entire incident is deeply unsettling. Dobromir Dymecki and Agnieszka Zulewska play the couple with such stacked layers of self-protectiveness and self-absorption, it’s a wonder if they are even aware of what has happened when the camera cuts to them post-incident. It’s a wonder if they are being honest about what they have seen or heard. Woszczynska maintains a well-paced buildup to this moment, and spends the rest of the film uncovering the fragility of their behaviours.
Interesting parallels between character psyches and settings are drawn in the screenplay, co-written by Woszczynska and Piotr Litwin. The house setting of Silent Land holds a compelling mirror to the couple’s emotional dysfunctions that dwell inside. The house falls apart in ways that appear mundane on the surface, but become almost fateful and betraying later on in the film. The recurring problem with closing the blinds to their windows is a neat parallel, particularly post-incident when the couple can’t shut out their consciences. Woszczynska plays broken house to dark humorous effect at times; as seen in a long sequence of the couple’s gate not opening/closing when they want it to. This house, tucked away and designed as a vacation from reality, isn’t the paradise they expect. Nor does it leave their personal dysfunctions and tensions outside the door. Most interesting about the house is what does end up working: the irony that once the pool is up and running, as per the couple’s request, neither of them step foot inside. Showing their unwillingness to immerse in the truth of their emotions, they would rather drop the entire incident out of veiled comfort and a false sense of security. The film makes strong use of setting as a way of mapping out how the protagonists process their irrational, often insanely unlikeable ways of thinking.
There is a precise look to every frame of this film; with pristine cinematography by Bartosz Swiniarski. So precise and cultivated to the point where all it takes is one single disturbance to shatter the foundation. From that point on, the house becomes unrecognizable in spirit. The characters’ perpetual interrupted bliss makes it so they can never go back to how they were. Woszczynska tells a stirring story of fragility…in relationships, in morality, in deciphering what courses of action to take when met with unpredictability. Much of the story’s conflict comes from watching Anna and Adam address each other’s instincts, with questions of why one said this and why the other said that. The frustration from not having an answer to give is palpable on screen, and drives both characters to a point of unexpected emotional release. Dymecki and Zulewska do a great job conveying how desperately their characters hold onto the idea of security as an outward display. One can cut the tension between them with a knife, but they push through. They drive each other away and make room to return, step and repeat. Regardless of what’s going on, until the bitter end, they consider it more important to act as a united front. It’s a way of thinking that absolves them from wrongdoing, which creates an unsettling experience watching them reassure their way to faux bliss.
In one of the moments where Adam storms off from Anna, he reaches a point of emotional release. Jumping into the sea, laughing his way through the tension that has enveloped their vacation in an ominous postcard. He returns home, wearing the debris of a rocky cliff. As a storm rages on outside the house, one is roaring just as loudly at their dinner table. They cut tension with a knife and wash down their guilt with a glass of red wine. As Aga Woszczynska has so precisely shown throughout her feature debut, the moments of silence speak the loudest volumes and leave behind the most to ruminate on. Making its case for one of the most haunting conclusions of a film this year, Silent Land offers the protagonists no true escape from the noise of their inner voices, no matter how united they appear for dinner.
Silent Land had its premiere on September 10th at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF21 runs September 9-18, 2021.