The film’s purpose is nothing more than to demonstrate the reach of Bach everyday, everywhere, and for everyone—twaddle pitched somewhere between a music appreciation class and a modernist experiment attesting to art’s ability to ennoble the quotidian. As if Bach were a new totalitarian, and Pere Portabella his propagandist, The Silence Before Bach doesn’t glorify everyday living but substitutes it altogether for a world governed by Bach devotion. The film opens with a manic player piano in the throes of stop-motion and the Goldberg variations chasing the camera back through a white, barren corridor; later, in a melodramatic interlude, a piano falls silently into the sea, as all sound, per the title, is presumably impossible without pianos to play Bach. Human influence and action are negligible throughout this collection of skits: Regretting the rest of their lives, humans exist as tools to play and create music, but it is the instruments themselves that produce the sound. Spinning anecdotes and kitsch, Silence Before Bach plays something like another Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Bach enthusiasts snatching the place of the zombies.
In one scene, a spick-and-span subway carries an orchestra diligently playing Bach, with nobody else aboard. In another, the camera successively creeps up on a beautiful woman as she takes a shower in a white empty studio, as she blows her hair while naked in a white empty bathroom, and once more as she plays Bach in a white, nearly-empty bedroom, just after her husband makes breakfast and tells her that all mankind will turn to dust. The minimalist design—medium-shots of actors in front of blank walls, and long shots of symmetrically arranged musicians—isn’t much in an era of iPod commercials and Ikea’s pervasive, schematic mise-en-scène. But the fantasy is perversely revealing of Portabella’s homogenized, whitewashed, dehumanized Europe—an extension of the clean, open-air shopping center Europe of Portabella’s last film, Warsaw Bridge. Ostensibly, The Silence Before Bach takes place all around the continent, as characters speak Spanish, German, and Italian, though there’s no way to tell as they sit around their haute-bourgeois flats murmuring of horrors—in a world that looks suspiciously like the domain of Mr. Clean—and listening to classical music.
The upside is Bach. The best, most mesmerizing segments assume the simplicity of Straub-Huillet’s majestic, mundane—and superb—The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach: The camera watches in place as music is produced materially from mathematical diagrams. But Straub-Huillet took it that if the music was to be the inspiration, the music would be the most inspired element; the only mystery needed would be watching it be made. Yet even one of Portabella’s best tales, in which Mendelssohn (Daniel Ligorio) discovers “The St. Matthew Passion” as his butcher’s
Wrapping paper, is a gimmick that works nearly as well on paper. Only one anecdote achieves anything like the calculated touch of Bach’s music. A German man in stereotypical 18th-century garb goes into a modern bar, leaves, and begins telling the camera about Bach’s life; he turns out to be a tour guide to Bach’s home. Suddenly, Portabella, waking up, takes on history’s repetition as farce, so persistent throughout the rest of the film. “There must have been a world…before the partita in A minor,” one character says later. “But what was that world like? A Europe of empty spaces with no resonance.” Grant the devoted the claim that Bach made life worth living for the very first time; Portabella’s world, still empty, still not resounding, is ample warning against any sort of Bach-ocracy. It’s Bach played into a void.