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Aga Woszczyńska’s Silent Land Speaks Volumes

Photo: courtesy Film Movement Plus.

A beautifully composed and superbly acted slice of slow cinema, Aga Woszczyńska’s debut feature Silent Land speaks volumes. On the surface, the Polish writer-director’s film documents the slow dissolution of a seemingly perfect couple’s fragile relationship as they travel to a picturesque Italian villa for a holiday. Yet underneath that glossy veneer of a surface there are little cracks and fissures ready to widen into gaping maws—especially when their idyllic vacation is interrupted by the presence of another man and the story told by Silent Land becomes a treatise on the treatment of undocumented immigrants.

Picture-postcard perfect Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) and Anna (Agnieszka Zulewska)—slim, fit, moneyed, and confident—look like a ideal match for their rented villa on a sunny Italian island. It’s a stunning locale, with its seaside views, hilly terrain, and modernist aesthetic. And the couple has plenty of time on their hands for a few days’ rest and enjoyment, including some good food, a some brisk runs, and a few healthy f*cks. Swimming is on the docket, too, in the villa’s tony pool, except for one problem: it’s drained, the result of a leak. The villa owner offers a reluctant fix: he’ll send a worker to resolve the matter.

Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) and Anna (Agnieszka Zulewska) rest on the beach at their rented villa.
Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) and Anna (Agnieszka Zulewska) in Silent Land. Photo: courtesy Film Movement Plus.

Woszczyńska and cinematographer Bartosz Swiniarski chart this first act of the film with a camera with a seeming mind of its own. Most frames are still, the camera remaining resolutely static even as the characters leave the frame. At times, the camera will wander away from them like Antonioni’s at the end of The Passenger, seeking out new or different information from what the generally innocuous dialogue might suggest. The effect may frustrate some viewers who need a steady diet of jump scares and prophetic utterances, but The Silent Land is instead slowly, methodically charting the Polish couple’s carefully curated wealth and privilege.

The presence of the laborer who’s come to fix the pool proves even more disruptive to Anna and Adam’s holiday than the empty pool itself. Looking down from a balcony above at shirtless, bearded Rahim (Jean-Marc Barr), their stony, stoic faces register next to nothing: Rahim, an undocumented immigrant unable to communicate with them in English, is beneath their concern as a human being, his value to them solely determined by his ability to fix the pool they have paid to swim in. As his project ensues, Adam and Anna find themselves irritated by Rahim’s ongoing presence, especially as his loud power tools disrupt their pastoral idyll.

Rahim (Jean-Marc Barr) works on the broken pool.
Rahim (Jean-Marc Barr) in Silent Land. Photo: courtesy Film Movement Plus.

And then there is a tragedy, though as is so often the case in the best narratives, the deeper meanings are wrought from characters’ response to tragedy rather than the tragedy itself. Without giving away spoilers, suffice it to say that neither the posh Polish couple nor the local citizenry nor the police are much concerned with the fate of an undocumented immigrant. The presence—then absence—of Rahim from Anna and Adam’s lives is the lever that cracks open the fissures between them and exposes them for their passivity, conformity, and alienation.

Anna and Adam are, as the final act of Silent Land shows, not only estranged from each other but from their neighbors more generally, their isolationist impulses blinding them to the plight of others who do not share their privilege. And for all that, Woszczyńska does not simply indict her characters for those qualities: she seeks, rather, to understand them as human beings, ones confident in their youth and privilege but unmoored by the prospect of its potential disappearance. Silent Land is Woszczyńska’s second run with the same characters and actors, who featured in her 2014 short “Fragments,” shown in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight. The more expansive canvas of the feature-film’s 113-minute length allows for a measure of growth—if albeit a small one—for Adam in particular, as he confronts his own complicity directly.

And Rahim? The undocumented immigrant, though he disappears from the canvas for a time, is never truly gone. His ghostly presence perseveres, haunting the couple even in those moments when their arguments ebb away into a stony, sober silence. Though it will employ a few moments of the supernatural, Silent Land has more in common with, say, the middle-period Bergman of Shame and its methodical study of a breakup than with most modern psychological horror. That, though, is the beauty of a Silent Land, a story that speaks volumes, not only about its protagonists but about the kind of people they have become and those they feel they can afford to ignore.


Beginning May 31, 2024, Silent Land is exclusively available on Film Movement Plus at filmmovementplus.com and Amazon Prime Video.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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