Dir: Stijn Coninx. Neth/Belg. 2003. 100 mins
An endearing, old-fashioned coming of age drama, Sea Of Silence travels a well worn road with care and craft. An episodic account of a family's joys and sorrows, it views the world through the eyes of a grave-faced, God-fearing little girl. A poised, mature performance from child actor Neeltje de Vree is the centrepiece of a film that may be too low-key and dour for many tastes, especially if audiences start making comparisons with a classic coming of age drama like My Life As A Dog or the more recent and more deeply-felt family saga In America. A modest level of upscale art house interest should be generated by Belgium's Oscar entry for the Best Foreign Language Film.
Ten years ago, director Stjin Coninx was an Oscar contender with the historical drama Daens. He seem unlikely to repeat the feat with Sea Of Silence although it does share some of the middlebrow qualities that endeared Nowhere In Africa to Oscar voters last year.
Set in the Holland of 1969, the film makes reference to turbulent times-John Lennon and Yoko Ono's peace protest is glimpsed on a television screen and everyone is excited by the Apollo 11 mission to land a man on the moon. (The film's current title is taken from the spot on the Moon designated for the landing. )
Nine year-old Caro (de Vree) lives on a pig farm and is preparing for her first communion. She cannot understand what is happening in the world or make sense of her own family life. Her father Mees (Stapel) is an incorrigible drunkard who survives on broken promises and second chances. Longsuffering mother Ita (Ter Steege) is a prisoner of her love for the family, despite thoughts of flight or divorce. Grappling with life and death, Caro eventually learns to stop taking the cares of the world on her slender shoulders.
Mercifully dispensing with lengthy voice-over narration or misty-eyed longing for the past, Jacqueline Epskamp's wistful screenplay takes a very balanced view of both the characters and the plethora of events that befall them. The film sees the good and bad in everyone with Mees' irresponsibility and bigotry matched by his loving ways and sense of shame when sober. This does mean that the film lacks dramatic intensity, although there are emotional high points when Caro reads the communion lesson or her mother displays the ferocity of a tiger in defending her family and her marriage from public ridicule.
Unfolding like the chapters in a sweeping novel, Sea Of Silence crams a good deal into its running time which again may explain why it doesn't cut quite as deeply as it might have. Ultimately, the subject matter is too familiar and the execution too mild-mannered for the film to make a lasting impression. What does linger in the mind is the quality of the performances, especially Johanne ter Steege as the mother and Neeltje de Vree who has the features and manner of very young Lili Taylor.
Prod Cos: Isabella Films, Sophimages, Lichtblick Film & TV Produktion, Zentropa
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Prods: Els Vandervost, Ineke van Wierst
Scr: Jacqueline Epskamp
Cinematography: Walther Vanden Ende
Prod Des: Peter Menne
Ed: Ludo Troch
Music: Henny Vrienten
Main cast: Huub Stapel, Johanna ter Steeg, Neeltje de Vree