Silent Land

Silent Land (Cicha ziemia) (2021)

Silent Land (Cicha ziemia) first published by Little White Lies

“Guests are aways welcome in our town,” police chief Giuseppe (Claudio Bigagli) tells Anna (Agnieszka Żulewska) some way into Aga Woszczyńska’s Silent Land (Cicha Ziemia). Indeed this small town on an Italian island is very accommodating to Anna and her husband Adam (Dobromir Dymecki), vacationing there and bringing much needed capital into the area. This community happily embraces affluent tourists like this Polish couple – obvious outsiders, given their blonde hair, pale skin and inability to speak the local tongue. Locals meet the privileged tourists’ every demand, and welcome them into local customs (at one point Anna is pulled, not entirely willingly, into a traditional dance in the town square). Fabio (Marcello Romolo), landlord of the luxuriously appointed villa that they have rented, even agrees to have the empty pool quickly repaired and filled for them, despite a local water shortage. Yet when undocumented labourer Rahim (Ibrahim Keshk), finishing off his work at this private pool, suffers a freak, fatal accident, it will become clear, as diving instructor Arnaud (Jean Marc Barr) points out, that, “The island is safe, except for those who aren’t invited.”

Co-writing with Piotr Litwin, Woszczyńska is unflinching in her examination of the haute bourgeoisie’s indifference to the lives of the proletariat and the marginalised, even as her cinematographer Bartosz Swiniarski deploys wide shots to keep everybody at a cool distance under the hot sun. In other words, Silent Land plays very much in the key of Haneke, chillingly exposing class entitlement and the aloofness that the rich maintain – even in an emergency – from the grubby mortality of the poor. Anna’s eye may have wandered towards the sweaty, muscular Rahim (“I’m sure he’s got lots of horny brothers”, are her telling words to Adam) while he was still alive, but once he has died, nobody seems to care about him. Casually racist and distracted by military manoeuvres on the island, the police just want to close the case quickly, and are more annoyed than interested when CCTV footage emerges that contradicts Adam and Anna’s version of events.

There is also something of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (2014) to the proceedings, as a couple on holiday is forced by an accident to confront who they really are. With the authorities proving altogether less curious about the tourists’ suspicious conduct than the evidence would require, Anna and Adam too choose at first to look away from the reality of what has happened, filling their stay with dancing, dining, diving and fucking. Yet as the realisation dawns that they are in the clear officially, their nagging consciences take over, making their actions ever more odd (“it doesn’t make sense”, both will comment on their respective behaviour). The guilt, shame and trauma of their own amoral selfishness keep bobbing back to the surface, and they must learn again not only to live with themselves and each other, but also – in the haunting final sequence – with a stranger who, despite his differences from them in class, race and language, will now forever be a guest at their table, welcome or otherwise.

strap: Aga Woszczyńska’s Hanekean holiday postcard casts a sunny yet chilly eye over the dark margins of its pretty picture

Anton Bitel