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AFI Fest 2012: A Hijacking and Berberian Sound Studio

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AFI Fest 2012: <em>A Hijacking</em> and <em>Berberian Sound Studio</em>

The real world, or at least the attempt to transmit some finite aspect of it, has been the aim of many a film—that transcendental dream that the screen is a window to the world and a movie can provide an authentic experience of it. Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm searches for that authenticity in A Hijacking, a dramatic story of modern-day naval piracy that was actually shot off the pirate-prone coast of eastern Africa. Some of that verisimilitude finds its way onto the screen, and there are successes in conveying the harrowing experience of a crew in captivity. But as with any grasp toward the real, there are fractures and questions and facets of the story left unexplored.

The film traces the fate of a cargo vessel hijacked by Somali pirates through the eyes of the ship’s cook, Mikkel (Johan Philip Asbæk); we bounce intermittently from the ship back to the home office in Denmark, where shipping CEO Peter (Søren Malling) tries to negotiate for the release of the ship and its crew. We alternate between their perspectives as the days of the standoff drag on into weeks and then months. It’s a study in contrasts, as both men attempt to maintain their resolve under what the film regards as different yet connected kinds of tension.

Lindholm’s greatest feat with the film is maintaining imbalances of knowledge, and in conveying the distances—both physical and psychological—between the two men. Peter plays a back-and-forth game with the pirates’ negotiator, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), one that resembles the corporate haggling he’s used to—except that this time, as he’s reminded constantly, one misstep means “they’re going to kill everybody.” And there’s a language barrier between Mikkel and his captors, one he tries to surmount as a strategy for survival, to wrest back some agency and dignity. But more often than not he’s a pawn in the game between Peter and Omar, which is made clear in the one-sided phone conversations that anchor the film. Here Lindholm plays on that imbalance of knowledge; it’s difficult for Mikkel to understand why Peter doesn’t just pay the ransom and get them all home, but he certainly understands that there’s a gun being pressed to the back of his head.

For all the back and forth here, the movie edges toward making this Peter’s story. Crucially, the actual moment of the hijacking takes place off screen, and it’s an interruption to Peter’s day that takes the form of an after-the-fact radio transmission. Yes, Mikkel and the rest of the crew are stewing in their own filth not knowing if the next day will be their last, but the film decides there is more to mine in the psychological burdens placed on Peter: the weary mantle of command that leads to plenty of scenes of soul-searching and silent brooding. Malling does play these moments with an elegant restraint, and that kind of focus is certainly a smart choice in the context of achieving a kind of realism. After all, the audience’s position in the theater is closer to Peter than it is to Mikkel; they’re also sitting together in a room waiting for the next event—the next plot point—to come in over the wire.

And it’s always a kind of realism because it’s never the whole story. The pirates, save for Omar, buzz around as a semi-anonymous collective of death, their chatter maintaining a hostile unintelligibility. When Peter’s kidnap and ransom consultant, Connor (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), throws out the pronouncement that “time is a Western thing” that the pirates don’t understand, perhaps there’s some truth there, but it passes with neither comment nor context. Moments like these complicate the film’s visceral and weighty qualities, where there’s the sense we’re not getting an understanding, only an experience.

But it’s certainly an experience. When Lindholm drills down to find the characters, the film works, as it does in the moment when Peter and Mikkel first make contact with each other. When Mikkel hears Peter—a disembodied voice, his only lifeline—seemingly brush him off to negotiate with Omar, a haunted look fills the cook’s eyes. The emptiness that overtakes him in that moment, that desperation, that feels real.

The other side of the coin is that all films are artificial, stitched-together things comprised of a myriad of pieces that merely exert a mystifying force that convinces us that we’re looking at something resembling reality. If that’s true, a skilled filmmaker can also demystify and pull those pieces apart in compelling ways, much as British writer-director Peter Strickland does in Berberian Sound Studio. The film takes the element of sound, usually an invisible (literally) part of the cinematic experience, and brings it to the foreground in incisive, mind-bending ways.

It starts right from the outset as the clip-clopping footfalls of British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) lead us into the titular complex where he’s been hired to work on an Italian giallo film, a 1970s Dario Argento-esque flick apparently filled with a panoply of gruesome tortures inflicted on hapless nubile ingenues. I stress “apparently” because we never really see a single frame of that film. We only circle around it with hilariously deadpan recitations of scene descriptions, and the closest we come to imagery of the actual film is with the tantalizing pale flicker of projected light that bathes the faces of Gilderoy and the crew as they work.

But it certainly feels like we’ve seen the film in question, because we’ve heard it. We hear the screams and grunts and wails of its protagonists; we hear the otherworldly musical score (in reality provided by British electronic outfit Broadcast); but most importantly, Strickland wrings an impressive intensity out of the scenes in which Gilderoy creates the sound effects for the film. With them, the violence inscribed on women’s bodies in front of the camera is endlessly recreated, except that those bodies are vegetized. Smashed heads become smashed watermelons, snapped bones become snapped celery stalks, and the film reserves its sharpest wince of sympathetic pain for the sizzle of water on a frying pan. It’s a parade of brutality that’s made all the stronger by finding the ways in which sound more clearly activates the imagination than anything we could see on the screen.

The conceit marvelously complements Jones’s performance, and work like this really should push his public persona beyond that of second banana in also-ran biopics. His Gilderoy is defined by a weedy British reserve that withdraws in the face of the intimidating masculinity of his Italian producer, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), and director, Santini (Antonio Mancino). He’s a gentle soul more used to working on children’s programs, and here he faces both culture shock and the shock of his work; even as Francesco berates him and tells him, “It’s just a film,” it’s clearly more than that to Gilderoy. More than anything, we’re watching a portrait of psychological disintegration; Gilderoy is like his studio equipment in that he’s sensitive to everything in his environment, and it takes its toll on him.

It starts as homesickness. Like the rest of the film, “home” is something that’s heard more than seen, in the form of entries from Gilderoy’s personal sound library. There’s an eerie, unreal quality to how that connection to home plays out, and as the plot progresses that unreality is accentuated to the point that it invades every aspect of the film. Santini, in his bloviating justification for the brutality of his work, addresses that question of realism by telling Gilderoy that he’s only showing history, and that he’s making films because “the world must know the truth…it must see the truth.” But Gilderoy knows better—that there’s often very little truth in what spools through a film projector. He knows how it all works, even as he becomes less and less sure that he knows how his own mind works.

And even in the midst of that instability, Strickland finds the pathos inherent to his protagonist. There’s a beautiful moment that takes place in the middle of a work-stopping power outage: In the darkness, when the image is dead, Gilderoy can still work his “magic powers” of sound. By candlelight, he wows the rest of the cast and crew by conjuring alien tones from simple objects. There’s such poignancy in that moment because there’s the feeling that it might be the first time in Gilderoy’s life that he’s the center of attention.

Berberian Sound Studio

AFI Fest runs from November 1—8. For more information, click here.