Angelopoulos & Camus on the Eloquence of Silence

Theodoros Angelopoulos silenceThe Greek film director Theodoros Angelopoulos is dead. On the TV the cameras pan across the crowd waiting outside a church in Athens. The presenters, not knowing when exactly the funeral service will begin, need to keep talking.

One of the presenters recalls a comment made by the Japanese film director Kourosawa. He said something to the effect that Angelopoulos had a rare talent for filming silence.

The adverts start. I can’t bear it. I switch the TV off.

I walk over to the window, look out at the cold hillside across the valley, and I watch and listen. It is not silence because through the closed window I can just make out the sound of the boy on the dirt road near the dry river bed. He is on his bicycle making the noise of a car engine as he cycles up and down the dirt road – something he regularly does at this time in the afternoon when he returns from school. And there is also the faint song of one or two birds that have not yet been shot.

I have no idea what Kourosawa meant or what silence might have been for Angelopoulos, but in my own silence I am filled with an incommunicable sense of the significance of things. Of that boy, of the hillside opposite, of these trees, of the grey clouds overhead and of those birds who have somehow escaped the rifles of the hunters.

And the significant things include things that are no more. Further down the valley from the boy is the small cottage Nikos lived in. I can’t see it. It is hidden behind a drop in the hillside. But I know it is there, and I know it is cold and empty. The absence of Nikos (who died last year) is still tangible.

And I am struck now by how this silence is so utterly different from the one that Albert Camus seemed to express.

For Camus language would seem to belong to the familiar world of convention and habit and illusion – a world which, at crucial moments, appears ridiculous. The sense of the absurd then wells up – “that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors”. At such moments, the only answer to the question: “What are you thinking?” is: “Nothing” – an utterance expressing the state of a soul for whom (as Camus puts it) “the void has become eloquent”.

And at such moments, what becomes clear for Camus in this “eloquent silence”? What becomes clear is that things are infinitely remote, foreign, alien and hostile.

“At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise. The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia…The world evades us because it becomes itself again. That stage scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is. …that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd.”

With Camus and Angelopoulos we have a clash of silences. For Camus, beyond language there is nothing significant. For Angelopoulos (and here I have to guess, relying on an imagined similarity between his eloquent silence and mine) what is most significant is beyond language – something that moves us in rare moments when the chatter of life goes quiet, and we feel the need to at least attempt to say the unsayable, or if that seems completely futile, perhaps to film the unsayable.

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