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Movie Review

The Silence Before Bach

Finding pureness in music and more

The Silence Before Bach
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / August 20, 2009

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Pere Portabella is the ghost in the machine of international cinema. The 79-year-old Catalan has directed eight features and a number of shorts over the years, produced Luis Buñuel’s still-shocking “Viridiana’’ (1961) (and briefly became an enemy of the state in the process), has written screenplays, acted in films, and served as a senator and a member of the Catalonian parliament. But because Portabella refuses to release his movies on video, he’s virtually unknown outside his home country.

The arrival of 2007’s “The Silence Before Bach’’ for five screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts thus constitutes an event. Even on its own, though, the film’s a remarkable and quixotic work: a free-floating series of visual essays on what music in general and Johann Sebastian Bach in particular mean to civilization. The links to Buñuel are there for the taking; as opulently measured as this movie is, it also has a playful, even subversive side. “The Silence Before Bach’’ finds beauty everywhere: in the curves of a naked woman, the gait of a dancing horse, and the godlike order of a prelude.

The film is structured as a series of vignettes, fictional, documentary, impressionistic. Portabella returns repeatedly to St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, moving his camera in on the great composer’s tomb, hanging out with a modern-day tour guide dressed as Bach (Franz Schuchart, playing himself), diving gracefully back in time to glimpse Bach (actor Christian Brembeck) at the organ.

There are no signposts or title cards: “The Silence Before Bach’’ lets us fend for ourselves, guided only by the achingly sensual majesty of the music. At one point Portabella slips into a subway car, tracking down a seemingly endless line of young cellists playing one of the suites. Then we’re back in the 19th century, and composer Felix Mendelssohn (Daniel Ligorio) is rediscovering Bach when his butcher wraps a chunk of meat in one of the great man’s works. (Maybe it never happened, but the director can’t resist.)

A Catalonian piano deliveryman (Àlex Brendemühl) talks with a colleague about the racism they confront; he’s seen later playing the bassoon in the quiet of a hotel room. Bach tutors his young son (Ferran Ruiz) at the harpsichord, urging him to “find the pureness in the music.’’ The movie expands that directive to embrace cinema, art, humanity itself. At times, Portabella rises to the nearly giddy, as when a magical sequence of Mendelssohn conducting the St. Matthew Passion is introduced by a singing female narrator.

It’s a pleasure, too, to find a modern movie that allows its images to unfurl at length. Tomàs Pladevall’s camerawork is patient and observant, and it understands that the long shot may be the only true way to film the world, even the parts that remain invisible. “The Silence Before Bach’’ is a movie in which to take refuge, and it abjures the summer heat of pop culture for a cool and lasting immersion in the miracles that people are and can create. The film’s unofficial motto, quoted midway through, comes from the Romanian writer Emil Cioran: “Bach is the only thing that reminds us that the world is not a failure.’’

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

THE SILENCE BEFORE BACH Directed by: Pere Portabella

Written by: Portabella, Xavier Alberti, and Carles Santos

Starring: Christian Brembeck, Georgina Cardona, Daniel Ligorio

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today and selected dates through Aug. 27

Running time: 102 minutes

Unrated (as PG-13: nudity)

In German, Italian, and Spanish, with subtitles

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