Pere Portabella. Major Spanish cinema auteur and political figure. Tireless anti-Franco activist. Elected senator in the first Democratic elections in 1977 Spain. Founder of the production company Films 59, which oversaw major works by Saura, Ferreri, and Buñuel, including the masterpiece Viridiana. Filmmaker in his own right, of both narrative and avant-garde. Recipient of a major retrospective last fall at MoMA.
And until today, I knew absolutely nothing about him. But I wiped the egg off my face long enough to take in the 78-year-old director's new film, The Silence Before Bach today at Film Forum, where it only has two more days to go before disappearing. No small matter that, considering that none of Portabella's films have been made available on DVD or video. Knowing next to nothing about this director, who yesterday I might have dubbed "Father Mushroom," undoubtedly contributed to my thoroughly enjoyable experience watching this unclassifiable film, which takes so many forms, yet has such a unified aesthetic, that it could only come from a master comfortable with his own experimentation. Whether it's self-consciously emulating biopic formulas, sensuously surveying musical performances, or reveling in visual non sequiturs, Silence is always tongue-in-cheek yet never in that reserved, overly constructed tableaux way that has defined international festival crossovers of recent years.
One basic way of describing this terrific, lulling whatsit is as an investigation of what classical music means, to Europe then and now, specifically, of course, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. No talking heads here, though. No characters either. And no Fantasia this, it's not really adequate to call it a series of abstract musical sequences. Instead, Portabella piles one anecdote atop the next, evoking the power of Bach's music within wildly different contexts. In the opening sequence, one of many elaborately orchestrated single takes, Portabella sinuously tracks a player piano sitting and swiveling atop a robotic base, moving itself across an empty, white warehouse space. Things do get more human from there, but any real show of emotion comes from the music itself, from choral to chamber to piano, from the Goldberg Variations to the Well Tempered Clavier to St. Matthew Passion—a boy's choir, a close-up of the perforated paper rolls inside a player piano as it crescendos, the matching of a keyboard piece with the whinnying movements of a show horse. Vignettes vary from the visually remarkable (a gorgeous, drifting pan down a narrow subway car lined with bowing cellists) to the narratively playful ("flashbacks" to Bach himself dealing with professional and domestic problems, shot with knowing, distanced artifice). It's a Europe before and after Bach, or as Portabella posits, music itself. Resourceful and unpretentious, The Silence Before Bach will make those in the dark, like me, want to peruse the rest of the Portabella canon. If MoMA has another retro, that is.