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As persistent echoes that afar consort
In dim and intense accord
Colossal as the dark and as the glow,
Scents, hues and sounds agree.

– Charles Baudelaire, “Correspondances”1

“A totally dead silence, […] a silence with no possibilities, has the inner harmony of black” thought Wassily Kandinsky, who believed in the synesthetic correspondences between painting and music.  “In music it is represented by one of those profound and final pauses, after which any continuation of the melody seems the dawn of another world,” he continued.2 Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Sokout (The Silence, 1998) is, however, full of colour. It is also a silence populated by sounds, however paradoxical that may seem.  The director confessed: “If society is colourful, then so am I. If I can’t say anything, then I have to say it with colours.”3

The story of a blind boy who supports himself and his mother with the income he earns as a tuner of musical instruments, the film involves all our senses, in a manner evoking the French Symbolist credo that we live in a world of correspondences between different arts and senses, that a sound can have a colour and a perfume a hue. Khorshid (Tahmineh Normatova), the protagonist, chooses pomegranates in the market by the sound he hears when he touches them, and bread by the voice of the girl selling it. If the bread is dry, it doesn’t matter – it still makes a beautiful sound. And he “sees” how pretty a face is by touching it. 

He often gets lost on his way to work by following a pretty voice, a musician or a song on a portable radio. But is he really lost? We see him extending his hands and making gestures like touching, caressing the sounds he follows. We wonder if the beautiful colours that burst out of the frame are not the colours he perceives in his mind. He seems not to distinguish between different sensory perceptions, in a synesthetic world that is at the same time recognisably our own and not our own. When the girl who is supposed to be his guide and companion (Nadereh Abdelahyeva) loses him in the open market, she decides the only way to find him again is by closing her eyes and following the sound. At that moment the world on screen subtly changes. The world of the girl with her closed eyes is shown in shallow focus. The colours (and, we imagine, the smells and tastes) of the fruit and vegetables are still there, but they are muted, shapeless, fluid. So much so that the spectator wonders if the boy, through his synesthetic abilities, doesn’t “see” more than a sighted person.

The dominant colour when music is made is red, a colour that Kandinsky believed has a wider variety of shades than any other: “The varied powers of red are very striking. By a skilful use of it in its different shades, its fundamental tone may be made warm or cold.”4 The girl wears red flower petals on her nails and red cherries over her ears. When the instruments are tuned, they are to those images – and also to that of her red lips. When the tuning becomes a melody, the petals and the fruit become different shades of red. It is as if every sound is a different shade, corresponding to a different musical tone. 

“Light warm red […] gives a feeling of strength, vigour, determination, triumph. In music, it is a sound of trumpets, strong, harsh, and ringing,” believed Kandinsky.5 No trumpets here. Strings and percussion make up most of the music, for the most part transcriptions of the iconic opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Boys in workshops, beating on metal shapes to transform them into pots and cauldrons, provide what for the uninitiated may sound like a cacophony. Under the guidance of our hero, these concrete sounds become music, in a manner reminiscent of the celebrated opening scenes of Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932).

All this apparent chaos is in fact orderly. Moreover, the film suggests that everything we experience (sound and sight for the average spectator, complemented by other sensorial perceptions for Khorshid) is part of a wider natural order: the on-screen musicians communicate through melody with dogs, horses and goats. When it rains, the drops fall on a string instrument in harmony, creating a melody of its own. As the boy says, the eyes can distract from meaning, echoing the director’s words: “it is the subject of the film I’m making that creates its own visual look.”6

A film may hold up a mirror to the world, but here that mirror is also a reflection of the inner world of our protagonist. When the girl explains to Korshid what a mirror is, he wants to know if and where he is reflected in it as well. The girl then draws with her finger around his image in the mirror. By touching this drawing, he seems to perceive the significance of reflection of an image. A static image in a world in continuous movement in which, despite their perpetual transformation, “Scents, hues and sounds agree”. 

The painter James McNeill Whistler believed that “as music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight.”7 We may wonder what he would have made of this film, with its sounds and painterly images continually accompanying, complementing and balancing each other. Like a musical poem for our sight.

Sokout/The Silence (1998 Iran/Tajikistan/France 76 min)

Prod: Marin Karmitz Dir: Mohsen Makhmalbaf Scr: Mohsen Makhmalbaf Phot: Ebrahim Ghafori Ed: Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Cast: Tahmineh Normatova, Nadereh Abdelahyeva, Goibibi Ziadolahyeva

Endnotes

  1. Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal (Paris: Garnier, 1961), p. 13. Translation from French by the author.
  2. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (Auckland: The Floating Press, 2008), p. 85.
  3. Hamid Dabashi, Conversations with Mohsen Makhmalbaf (London, New York and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010), p. 104.
  4. Kandinsky, p. 86.
  5. Kandinsky, p. 86.
  6. Dabashi, p. 185.
  7. Quoted in Thomas Bey William Bailey, Hear the World with New Eyes (Murcia: SONM, 2016), p. 242.

About The Author

Rolland Man is a Teaching Fellow in Film Studies and Literature and Drama for the Centre for Open Learning at the University of Edinburgh.

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