A few weeks back, Caracas chronicler Héctor Torres published an article entitled “Hostigando el silencio” [“Pestering Silence”], in which he writes of Caracas as a city kept afloat by its enormous and intense sound waves. Its inhabitants are terrified of silence, he writes; ‘Desconfía cuando la ciudad parece detenerse. Es el vivo ejemplo de la calma que precede a la tormenta.’ Scared of silence as a harbinger of death, perhaps, or the edge of a void unknown, the people of Caracas fill public spaces with scandals, rackets and bululú, counteracting noise with more noise ad infinitum.
The Rodríguez brothers’ first feature film, Brecha en el silencio [Breach in the Silence] deals with a similar sound-off in the capital. Ana, a deaf young girl from the barrio, suffers silently at the hands of an abusive stepfather and an indifferent mother. When not working unforgiving hours at a textile factory, Ana (Vanessa Di Quattro) is burdened with household chores and the task of raising her youngest brother. Meanwhile, stepfather Antonio (Rubén León) finds relief from his rampant wife Julia (Juliana Cuervos) in periodically raping his daughters and beating his youngest son. Set to a soundtrack of muffled conversations and hidden scenes, Brecha en el silencio makes for emotive viewing. The violence of dysfunctional families is no new theme in Venezuelan cinema (Cheila una casa pa’ Maíta is a recent example), but the Rodríguez brothers approach the delicate matter of deafness and the artistic challenge of silence with startling sensitivity.
Her inability to communicate – and her parents’ reluctance to allow her to do so – converts Ana into an object of desire and a machine of labour subject to the perverse demands of her family life. Stripped of the power to speak, she is reduced to the lowest of the low in a place where women already matter little. Silence here is truly terrifying. But the beauty of the Rodríguez’s cinematography works to restore depth to Ana’s existence. Beyond the shrill hum of factory machines and the screams Antonio and Julia, the camera works to excite our senses in different dimensions. Much of the film is kinaesthetic: we feel the monotony of sewn fabrics, the gloop of spilt nail varnish, the love of a gentle caress. The imagery evoked by memory is used to fuse the characters – Ana shares intimate shots of caterpillars and chickens with her brother – and also to set them apart. Ana frequently appears in intimate shots imprisoned by the barbed wire of the city, or framed by the dilapidated structure of her house. Despite a heavy reliance on the image to bear the weight of the film’s silence, Ana’s contemplation of her own reflection in a cracked mirror warns us not to trust our sight too much. The use of sound peaks and troughs, playing with our own aural experience. Now we hear, now we don’t; now it’s clear, now it’s distant. Brecha en el silencio talks to its viewers, while Di Quattro’s convincing delivery of the role sustains the conversation.
The film’s title suggests a somewhat utopian finale, which the Rodríguez brothers faithfully deliver. While the plot opens with blurred notions of good and bad (Ana initially seems to purposefully provoke her mother, whose relationship with Antonio seems genuine enough to begin with), these seem to be resolved into concrete categories as the story develops. The kids end up innocent, fun-loving, free, while the grown-ups suffer their demise. For me this seems leaves something lacking, almost backwards, not to mention the fact Ana has more appeal with more rebellious oomph. The happy ending involves the sea and some dancing. The less we hear about that, the better. Still, for a first feature length this is a tremendous feat and a real treat for the faculties. Through Rodríguez’s creative vision, even the harshest sounds of the city acquire a certain appeal that invites us to listen.