In August 2011, The Guardian ran a two-page spread that wound up christening a brand-new cinematic movement. Written by Steve Rose, “Attenberg, Dogtooth, and the Weird Wave of Greek Cinema” began with two questions: “Are the brilliantly strange films of Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari a product of Greece’s economic turmoil? And will they continue to make films in the troubled country?” Greece, as it turned out, continued to be troubled, the Greeks continued to make films, and the Greek Weird Wave somehow stuck as a catch-all term to denote what Rose then hyperbolically called “the world’s most messed-up cinema.” But the several films that earned the label since have only questioned its meaning and applicability. Messed-up and inexplicably strange the descendants of Attenberg and Dogtooth no doubt remain, but the many different shades of weird they brim can hardly be accounted for by an increasingly empty buzzword.
So it is for Silence 6-9, Christos Passalis’ solo directorial debut. Passalis’ own journey in the Greek Weird Wave began as an actor: he starred, among others, in Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Syllas Tzoumerkas’ The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea––both opposite Angeliki Papoulia, whom he recruited as co-star in Silence 6-9. Yet the film, while drawing from the same allegory-heavy bizarro popularized by Lanthimos and his descendants, strives for a different register. Drenched in melancholia and unspeakable loneliness, it’s a lot closer in moods to the cinema of Aki Kaurismäki than, say, The Lobster. And if its more humane approach makes for a refreshing detour from your trademarked brand of Greek Weird, whatever that may be, the end result feels somewhat patchy, making for a lopsided film wherein the script struggles to live up to some of the feverish images immortalized by Giorgios Karvelas’s caliginous cinematography.
Still, strange Silence 6-9 most certainly is. From the first shot––in which a lone man walks down a deserted street in the dead of night, stalked by ravens that keep falling from the sky and a couple of hotel chambermaids that glare at him from a bridge––the film teems with ominous, oneiric flourishes. The man is Aris (Passalis, here in triple-duty as writer, director, star) and the unidentified stretch of Greece he’s roaming is a dilapidated town that decided, some time back, to observe a strict sonic curfew. No one is to speak between the hours of six and nine, lest the noise disrupt the morbid experiments carried out by a team of scientists who’re relying on an army of antennas to pick up fragmentary messages from people who’ve mysteriously left the town and their loved ones behind. Aris is to work on the antennas, but he spends much of his time with the town’s only other newcomer, Anna (Papoulia), who’s been hired as a stand-in for a woman who vanished in thin air, and surrogate wife for her heartbroken husband.
It’s an intriguing and sinister premise for a film that ultimately hinges on a well-trodden dilemma: how and whether one should learn to let go. Passalis, who wrote the script with Eleni Vergeti, literalizes the conflict by adding to his gaggle of hangdog grievers a mayoral candidate whose whole campaign doubles as a plea to forget and move on. The fuzzy messages from the hereafter are recorded on cassette tapes that get handed out to the last surviving residents, one of several examples of anachronistic tech that production designer Márton Ágh skillfully employs to blur the film’s temporal references, leaving one to grapple with a Twin Peaks-like What Year Is This? unease.
But for a film about a whole town caught in a state of protracted mourning, Silence 6-9 begs an existential question: whether the dead are those who fled or those who stayed behind. The lobotomized, phantom-like people populating Passalis’ tale aren’t much different from the living dead dotting older Weird Wave titles, from Lanthimos’ hits down to more recent forays (e.g. Christos Nikou’s 2021 Apples). An eerie lifelessness haunts everyone in Silence 6-9, as if the limbo that characters are mired in drained them of all feelings. Even Aris and Anna, for all their timid flirting, fumble into the depopulated village as human chrysalises. And that omnipresent torpor transpires from the script as well. The film is full of staid exchanges, of profundities uttered in a deadpan tone. That may be of a piece with the overall still-life aura, but it also means Silence 6-9 seldom plays above a feeble emotional pitch.
It’s a pity: Passalis and Papoulia say and convey plenty through mere glances and silent gestures. Part of the charm in this film is to witness their unlikely romance blossom in a place that seems to have banned emotions as much as noise. And it’s all the more frustrating because of the many disquieting images Passalis and Karvelas craft along the way, not least a peep show that sees the abandoned ogle at those standing for their loved ones, a choreography of longing that, like much of the film, feels more stilted than desperate. Passalis has a keen eye for scenes that look dredged up from the subconscious; the film was shot in the outskirts of Athens, and there are times when, Lilliputian figures standing next to derelict arches and buildings, Aris and co. look like silhouettes in a De Chirico painting. Cassette tapes billowing in the breeze, hotel rooms swelling into prison cells, suicidal ravens, burst lips––Silence 6-9 thrives on cryptic, enigmatic images, and the lingering sense of mystery it radiates is ultimately more alluring than hermetic. Yet the mute register winds up siphoning the weird from its most perturbing passages, and the oomph out of its unlikely, dreamlike romance.
Silence 6-9 screened at the Cyprus Film Days International Festival.