Veteran Spanish director Pere Portabella’s meditation on the music of J.S. Bach glides seamlessly between historical reenactments and sequences featuring real people, such as Franz Schuchart, who gives Bach-related tours in period costume. The result is neither entirely documentary nor fiction, and will infuriate as many viewers as it enthralls.
Portabella’s interests are as much formal as narrative, evident in matched images: gray rivers and roadways, the hands of Bach (Brembeck) on a keyboard echoing the delicately crossed ankles of a horse executing classical dressage. One story involves a bassoon-playing trucker delivering a piano to a Spanish musician (incongruously introduced in the shower); iconic bits of Bach lore unfold in re-creations: composing the insomnia-soothing Goldberg Variations, teaching his son to play piano using The Well-Tempered Clavier.
The Silence Before Bach is a theoretical exploration of the ideal of order and symmetry, and a slippery one at that. One character imagines Europe before the Partita in A Minor as a place of “empty spaces with no resonance”—exactly the present-day Europe captured in Portabella’s icy shots of bland, utilitarian architecture and motorways. Dissect and discuss.