German director Caroline Link’s story of a deaf couple and their sly, vivacious, hearing daughter is sensitive and courageous enough to restore the art of poignant upliftjust as poignant uplift nears extinction after years of sentimental debasement. Working with an international cast and translators for the deaf actors (the French, German, and American sign languages are vastly different), Link follows the girl’s development as she discovers within herself a profound love of the one thing that is incomprehensible to her supportive parentsmusic.
At 8 years old, Lara (Tatjana Trieb) is a fun-loving child forced into the role of adult. She negotiates communication between her parents and the rest of the adult world, answering phones, translating at the bank, and taking license with the facts at a parent-teacher conference where her poor reading skills are supposed to be the main topic. She doesn’t take advantage of her parents just because she can; Lara’s the classic child fixer. She steps in for her folks not only as a translator but as a player, telling her father, Martin (Howie Seago), not to beg when the bank turns down their loan application and keeping from her gentle, ethereal mother, Kai (Emmanuelle Laborit), the painful fact that her reading suffers because there’s no one in the house who can help her with it.
When Lara does allow herself escape from the constant pressure of accommodating her parentsand much of the film’s fascination is in this mundane detail, the family and their house’s special adaptations to circumstancesshe fantasizes about life with, or as, Martin’s sister Clarissa. Clarissa (Sibylle Canonica) is a spectacular redhead, rich, gorgeous, and seemingly as emotionally vibrant as the well-meaning Martin and Kai are dim, to the 8-year-old’s eyes. The silence that muffles Martin and Kai’s household and intensifies the bond of understanding between them is a gift Lara cannot appreciate, and she hungers for Clarissa’s glamorous attributesher beauty, her skill at ice-skating, the sound of her clarinet.
One disastrous Christmas (the film implies it is one after another, thanks to Martin and Clarissa’s judgmental, insensitive parents and Clarissa’s sad-sack husband), Lara’s aunt makes her a gift of her first clarinet and offers to cut the child’s hair. Desperate to transform herself, Lara agrees, driving a wedge between herself and her parents, who understand very well that Clarissa’s gifts are an expression of her own vanity. But Lara falls in love with the instrument and absorbs herself in practice, while Kai and Martin tend their new baby, Marie.
Once the baby arrives, Beyond Silence ends Act I and closes the curtain on the relieved Lara, who has satisfied herself that little Marie can hear and possibly become an ally in the household. It is with some trepidation we leave Miss Trieb’s participation behindher unusual good looks and charisma promise to be unmatchable in her character’s teenage incarnation. But French actress Sylvie Testud, speaking flawless German and German sign language, is even more chimerical and alluring as the adolescent Lara. Pinkie-slender, with the foxlike face of a Maurice Sendak drawing, she evinces the easy grace of a 19-year-old mature before her time and the touching awkwardness of a young lady with a foot in two worlds, in neither of which she is entirely comfortable.
Once again, Clarissa materializes to steal Lara away, this time literallyshe offers to let the girl live in her tasteful, art-stuffed Berlin home while studying in a conservatory. Lara’s parents are almost helpless by this point, uninterested in her musical career and at the mercy of the sloppy whims of little Marie (Alexandra Bolz), an impish, spoiled blonde too self-centered to take on Lara’s domestic burden.
In Berlin, Lara encounters various milestones of growing upshe meets and falls in love with a hearing teacher of the deaf, attends a free-form concert that changes her ideas about composition and performance, and watches Clarissa’s candy castle fall apart. Romance, dashed ideals, and aesthetic maturity aren’t novel inventions, but the script makes them feel fresh. It rearranges the configuration of the entire film’s chessboard, removing pieces through (not entirely unexpected) tragedy and teasing out surprising strength and goodness in the most diffident pawns.
Beyond Silence is lovely to look at; Lara’s Bavarian home is harsh and idyllic, the Berlin scenes zippy and modern. In between the story of the girl’s development and the family’s power shifts, Link also manages to make some strong points about the official German stance on deaf culture. The country makes few accommodations for its deaf citizens; until recently, sign language was forbidden in German schools, and users had to learn it on the sly. The unique worldview that this language and shared disability impart to the deaf is manifest in the script, in both its richness and unbreachability. Gallaudet University is like Mecca for the characters, who can hardly imagine a school where every subject is taught in sign language. Beyond Silence is no “disability movie”it’s a coming-of-age story with a particularly strong heroine at its center, set in circumstances that are as captivating as they are unusual.CP