Sunday, July 7, 2013

An Englishman in Italy in Peter Strickland's tricky proposition Berberian Sound Studio

2012, UK, 
92 mins)

In Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, Donald Sutherland played an American in Italy, slowly going mad in the wake of a terrible loss. His wife (Julie Christie) was with him in Venice, but he was the one seeing the strange visions. Compared to Toby Jones, the lead in Peter Strickland's second film, Berberian Sound Studio, he was tall and stolid, whereas the diminutive Jones looks frail and vulnerable right from the start. 

Jones plays Gilderoy, a British sound mixer who travels to Italy in 1976 to work on The Equestrian Vortex, a giallo. Instead of opening with standard-issue credits, Strickland heads straight to the blood-red credits for the film-within-a-film as Broadcast's score fills the speakers (it features some of the last recorded vocals of Trish Keenan). Gilderoy's introduction to Santini's film doubles as our introduction to Strickland's.   

A specialist in 
television doc-
Gilderoy i
both surpris-
ed and unset-
tled to find 
that Eques-
trian has noth-
ing to do with 
horses. And 
that filmmaker 
Giancarlo San-
tini (Antonio Mancino) is rarely around. Instead, he works with impatient producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) on the sound design, which encompasses dialogue, sound effects, foley work, wordless singing, and music. 

Strickland, who shot the entire film in England, eschews exterior shots in favor of claustrophobic interiors filled with vintage recording equipment, like bulky reel-to-reel machines (whirring tape serves as a recurring motif).

Though the Italian crew speaks English, Gilderoy receives conflicting messages about the way things work at the studio. Money appears to be in short supply, and he comes to fear that he won't get anything at all. 

If his male colleagues can be boorish, he finds an ally in Sylvia (Fatma Mohamed), an actress who admires his work, but the misogyny of the project, which involves the torture of witches, starts to grind him down.  

As in the gial-
los of yore,  
those of Dario 
Argento, the 
scheme fav-
ors shadows, 
and everything is brown and gold with splashes of red--radishes, tomato sauce, and a flashing "Silenzio" sign--but Strickland avoids any scenes from the fictional film. The sound is the thing, and whenever the foley artists fail to show up, Gilderoy steps in to do their job.

Once he transitions from observer to participant, though, his sanity takes a trip, and Strickland blurs the lines between the studio, his dreams, his mother's letters, and the world of the film. They all join together as one. 

In its rigorous attention to sound, Berberian Sound Studio brings to 
mind Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Brian De Palma's  
Blow Out, cinematic predecessors that revolved around audio experts 
obsessing over the things they hear--or think they hear--on their reels. 

Is it significant that directors of Italian descent made those motion pictures? Probably not, but it's an intriguing coincidence, especially since Italy's Michelangelo Antonioni made Blow-Up, the British film that inspired De Palma's effort.

By comparison, Strickland has 
made a smaller movie, and the 
final sequence is so subtle that 
I didn't realize it was over until 
the closing credits began to un-
spool, and that's exactly how it 
should be. Just as Gilderoy los-
es the ability to distinguish fic-
tion from reality, I found myself 
letting go of my preconceptions about conventional thrillers to make way for a trickier proposition like Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio plays Northwest Film Forum through July 11. 

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