TIFF 2021 review: Silent Land (Aga Woszczyńska)

“In this strong and provocative first feature, moral deceit is mysterious and dreadful but greater than a single relationship, eventually leaving those in its wake gasping for air.”

A common social media lament over the past pandemic year and a half is the inability to freely travel, where those with the means to do so find themselves instead trapped within realities that may or may not be Instagram-able. In the ordinary and familiar, problematic situations or toxic relationships are unavoidable. The difficult is always there, upon us, so wouldn’t it be nice to get away? It’s a well-worn refrain on the tiny mobile screens held in our hands just as it has been on larger ones in cinemas for over a century. A holiday will reset and refresh.

Silent Land, the unnerving debut feature from Aga Woszczyńska, intercepts the bourgeoisie illusion of a rejuvenating vacation head-on while soberly mirroring it against a much different type of escape. A thirtysomething Polish couple, Anna (Agnieszka Żulewska) and Adam (Dobromir Dymecki), arrive on an Italian island for days of relaxation. The pale, blond and remote duo are stark against the exquisite warmth of the seaside, neatly arrived mannequins draped in modern separates and neutrals just so. They are as much packaged as their anticipated vacation rental but when the small villa lacks amenities – most notably, a working pool – the curated trip crumbles with their relationship.

Steeped in a precise tradition that nods to Haneke and Antonioni, the storytelling of Silent Land conjures dread in broad daylight. The sinister is not found after dusk on the unnamed island but rather in the muted colors visible under the sun, bleached Mediterranean pastels, cracked yet striking, surrounding the cool foreign couple. Woszczyńska utilizes the lens of Bartosz Świniarski to observe soft visual cues beyond narrative action/inaction to provoke tension. As the title suggests, there is a stillness to the film where steady, transfixing camera movements languish towards interpersonal doom and mundane, commonplace sounds signal dread. At its most exquisitely distressing, Silent Land can be both breathtaking and benign in a single shot.

When a freakish accident further compounds their holiday, Anna and Adam treat the tragedy as an annoyance little different than the dry swimming pool. This inconvenience reveals existing fissures in their relationship as they are questioned by local authorities. Their self-centeredness is laid bare. Slowly, methodically, they tear into each other. When Adam finds himself unable to breathe during a scuba excursion, Anna calls into question his virility and devotion (asphyxiation as a literal and figurative concept is explored several times in the film). Tiny eruptions between the two become more pronounced and volatile as the buzz of a CCTV camera or dull beeping of a security alarm give way to threatening skies and darkened waters at their seaside retreat.

The horror of Silent Land is human-scale. Woszczyńska, from her screenplay co-written with Piotr Jaksa Litwin, utilizes a failing relationship loosely relatable to audiences to reveal greater social failures. Anna and Adam are presented at times broadly and with touches of caricature, but surely these two know where the nearest art house cinema is in their city! After the tragedy that sends the couple veering towards collapse, the victim is revealed to be a refugee and casually written off: “he wasn’t even legal.” The humanitarian crisis of immigration in Europe and elsewhere is deftly interwoven into the central relationship of Silent Land, a damning contrast to the sad holiday Anna and Adam endure. They are too self-absorbed to notice the calamity of civilization that is in their midst, literally steps outside their villa. In this strong and provocative first feature, moral deceit is mysterious and dreadful but greater than a single relationship, eventually leaving those in its wake gasping for air.