Despite the enormity of synchronised dialogue’s impact on the film industry, starting in features with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, there’s a school of thought which claims that the ‘talkies’ somehow compromised cinema’s essence; that the rapid dominance of the spoken word detracted from film’s unique visual potential, dragging it back towards the theatre or even pictorial literature. No serious cineaste would argue against sound’s importance in motion pictures, but there’s also some truth in the purists’ notion: if a picture’s worth a thousand words, is a cinema over-reliant on dialogue somehow devalued?
Clearly cinema’s finest screenwriters, from Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Billy Wilder to Quentin Tarantino and Charlie Kaufman, have greatly enhanced their work with fizzing, inventive wordplay. That said, visual storytelling is an art form and when dialogue is stripped down, or completely away, it’s most evident. Take Miroslav Slaboshpitskiy’s The Tribe, which won the best film award at the 58th BFI London Film Festival. Set among a volatile subset of young people at a Ukrainian school for the deaf, it’s eye-catching in its fluid long takes and inexorable tracking shots, uncompromising in its brutal storyline, and both in its relentless use of sign language, without benefit of subtitles or translation.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
The Tribe’s deliberate restriction (to those who can’t sign) is actually incredibly liberating, forcing its audience to watch and ‘read’ the film in a more concentrated, intuitive way. However this isn’t a strategy limited to stories about a deaf community. As this list shows, several other filmmakers have drastically cut down or completely eliminated dialogue from their work to fascinating effect. A quick proviso: ‘silent’ films outside the pre-talkie era (Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, The Artist) weren’t considered, as they’re clearly homages to that earlier time. Which still leaves a tantalising group of more recent films aiming to enrich their artistry by proving talk is cheap.
The Thief (1952)
Director Russell Rouse
Truth be told, The Thief is few people’s idea of a great movie. In this Cold War espionage tale of Ray Milland’s nuclear physicist turned spy, the absence of dialogue results in numerous shots of people scowling at each other across city streets, phones ringing with no answer and weirdly wordless encounters between people who would surely have plenty to say to each other. It’s hard to envisage the film as much more than a gimmick along the lines of director Russell Rouse’s previous (and far more successful) screenplay for high-concept thriller D.O.A. (1949), which memorably opens with a man reporting a murder – his own, through a slow-acting poison.
So ultimately what’s most instructive about The Thief are the things it gets wrong: too much over-expressive facial acting, too many contrived silent set-ups that obscure character development and motivation, as well as an over-emphatic soundtrack to fill in the gaps. It’s a film that would be vastly improved with dialogue, a great cautionary tale of when style overwhelms substance. And all the more salutary when one can see that just one year later across the Atlantic…
Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953)
Director Jacques Tati
…Jacques Tati showed all-too clearly how limited dialogue can speak volumes. Inspired by the great tradition of silent movie clowns, most notably Buster Keaton, plus his own background as a mime artist, Tati’s first outing as his iconic alter ego Hulot, is as unassuming and singular as his protagonist. The impeccably well-mannered Hulot inadvertently wreaks havoc at a Brittany seaside resort without uttering a word, while the entire gaggle of holidaymakers, though rarely silent, stand in as a largely unintelligible chorus that still clearly voices their own foibles and frustrations. In fact the entire sound design is a meticulously rich tapestry and a wonderful counterpoint to the minimal dialogue.
Those new to Tati may be surprised, disappointed even, at how low-key most of his humour is. His style, with nary a close-up in sight, is gently observational and generously democratic; and, despite set pieces like a capsized kayak or an accidental funeral attendance, not dependent on exaggeration or outsize visuals to compensate for any perceived audio deficiency. That the film became a huge international hit and Hulot so beloved, is a victory for a subtle, sophisticated humanism that loses nothing in translation.
The Naked Island (1960)
Director Kaneto Shindo
That this exquisite, minimalist Japanese drama is wordless feels apt: it’s as if all human expression is overwhelmed by nature’s might. It deals with the struggles of a family of four to eke out a living on their otherwise uninhabited, barren island home, rowing back buckets of fresh water every day to irrigate the land and grow crops. It’s monotonous, backbreaking work and, literally, for both the characters and director Kaneto Shindo (best known for psychosexual horror classic Onibaba, 1964) and his dedicated team, the labour of love. These people are defined by their actions; what they might say about this counts for little in comparison.
What we do hear are the naturalistic sounds of the great outdoors – lapping waves, rushing wind – and Hiraru Hayashi’s noble, melancholy score. Distilling the film to these essentials means that numerous allegories open up. Is this a study of Sisyphean futility? A tribute to an agrarian way of life fast disappearing? Even an oblique commentary on the aftermath of Hiroshima (Shindo’s hometown) and Nagasaki? That such rich debate should pour forth from such hushed simplicity confirms the film’s rare, naked power.
Le Bal (1983)
Director Ettore Scola
Though much honoured in its time (joint best film at the Césars, Oscar-nominated as best foreign language film), Ettore Scola’s look at 50 years of French social and cultural history filtered through one ballroom has now shimmied almost totally out of the limelight. Sure, it’s a one-off curio, with a revolving cast wordlessly dancing through the 30s, World War II, the birth of rock and roll, the 1968 generation and into (then-contemporary) mirrorballed disco. But though Scola honours the piece’s theatrical origins, his canny choreography of camera and actors, without ever over-elaborating, makes for a truly cinematic show.
As we shuffle from big-band classics to the Beatles, love affairs and thwarted passion, tales of youthful exuberance and middle-aged resignation switch and change like restless dance partners. Inevitably some vignettes work far better than others – the German occupation and resistance is a standout – but ultimately with music and movement as evocative and elegant as this, who needs dialogue?
The Bear (1988)
Director Jean-Jacques Annaud
French director Jean-Jacques Annaud had already undertaken a project involving no modern human language, 1981 caveman saga Quest for Fire. Here he went even further by switching species. The Bear actually focuses on two ursine leads: an orphaned cub and the glowering adult male grizzly who reluctantly takes him on. There are two human hunters on their tail, who swap a few mandatory platitudes, but otherwise this is the call – and grunt and growl – of the wild, an action movie from the animal’s perspective (most amusingly when the little cub hallucinates on magic mushrooms).
While Werner Herzog for one would no doubt disapprove of the clear anthropomorphisation going on here, there’s more to The Bear than cute, furry antics. Though painstakingly coerced, much of the film suggests documentary-like observation of animals in their own habitat. And not to denigrate either Disney or the BBC Natural History Unit’s fine work, but it’s a very different kettle of fish to successfully design an adventure story with a notoriously volatile lead – Bart, a nine-foot Kodiak – and make it seem so real. Getting this up-close to nature requires a connection independent of, and in fact not dependent on, verbal communication.
Belleville Rendez-vous (2003)
Director Sylvain Chomet
Given that animation’s elasticity seems so well suited to creating worlds without dialogue, it’s strange that so few English-speaking animated features attempt it (whereas, say, Pixar regularly uses this approach in its shorts). Perhaps animators are intimidated – and with good reason – by Sylvain Chomet’s flawless, near-wordless feature debut, an uncanny blend of retro-tinted nostalgia that incorporates styles from Max Fleischer to Robert Crumb yet still feels innovative. The vertiginous metropolis of Belleville, for example, could be from a 30s Flash Gordon serial or another borough of The Matrix.
Its plot – an old woman and her dog rescue her champion cyclist grandson from scheming gangsters with the help of three aging chanteuses – would doubtless be deemed far too ornery and odd for mainstream (ie, you know, for kids) mores but its flights of surrealism, overt cinephilia and wonderfully buoyant score will delight more offbeat tastes. Best of all, Chomet’s deft visual storytelling and intricate soundscape gives us everything we need to know and feel his world, even while his creations say nothing.
In the City of Sylvia (2007)
Director José Luis Guerín
There’s an eight-minute stretch of stilted conversation in the middle of this 84-minute ode to lovelorn youthful romanticism. And while this scene gets to the crux of the gossamer-thin narrative – has our hapless dreamboat Él, armed with only a sketchbook and nostalgia, finally tracked down the young woman he’s been obsessed with for six long years? – the true, yearning heart of José Luis Guerín’s delicate yet potent film lies in the long, meditative, dialogue-free stretches on either side.
As Él prowls Strasbourg, searching for his long-lost Sylvia, the camera sets us up as his accomplice, forever glimpsing, studying, occasionally approaching and then rejecting or being rejected by an endless series of enigmatic women. Guerín confronts the potentially sinister aspect of his hero’s quest, but effectively excuses him by showing the seductive nature of a sun-dappled, vibrant town, the transience of beauty and devotion and the disillusionment – and then sudden renewal – of youthful passion. Such intimate, universal emotions scarcely need to be articulated; merely visualised – often evocatively through mirrors and reflections – and deeply felt.
Le quattro volte (2010)
Director Michelangelo Frammartino
Conceived with almost documentary-like detachment, this acclaimed Italian feature is ostensibly, as its title suggests, about transmigration across the four stages of existence as decreed by Pythagoras (himself a one-time denizen of this remote corner of Calabria, southern Italy): man, animal, vegetable, mineral. So there’s an elliptical ‘circle of life’ concept at play – the death of an ailing old goatherd; a newborn goat; a felled timber that will eventually be burned, its smoke rising upwards.
Le quattro volte certainly has the cerebral capacity to advocate such a theorem, its serene, unforced nature soundtracked by the tinkling bells and bleats of the herd, or the barking of a scene-stealing dog rather than any human voices, or even a musical score. There’s a carefully controlled authorial voice though, Frammartino skilfully marshalling his camera to track a procession, synchronise with a runaway van or peer out from behind charcoal blocks. It’s all meant to suggest a metaphysical presence behind the very tactile world depicted. And if the film provides certain epiphanies for some viewers, it’s clear that quiet contemplation is the way to encourage them.
All Is Lost (2013)
Director J.C. Chandor
It’s been – rightly – said that Robert Redford’s movie stardom is not so much due to his acting, but rather his reacting, an underappreciated talent evoking everyman empathy and relatability, Malibu-surfer looks be damned. It’s a masterstroke, then, to cast Redford as ‘Our Man’ in J.C. Chandor’s intimate survival-at-sea epic. As Redford, 77 (!), valiantly battles to keep his holed yacht from going down, Chandor keeps his camera trained on the craggy, weather-beaten features of his veteran star as he assesses and then tries to combat escalating disaster. The reward is a nuanced career-capping performance.
No need, then, for words or explanatory backstory (in that respect it’s the anti-Gravity), aside from a brief prologue voiceover of contrition for sins unnamed, plus a vented expletive at a particular low point. It’s Our Man versus the elements, and the creaking, leaking hull, wheezing bilge pump and gushing sea water, the tangible absence of everything but the ocean, a sinking vessel and a man’s will to live create an experience immersive in every way.
Director Kim Ki-duk
Shrieks of rage, whimpers of pain, blissful moans… there are plenty of vocal expressions in this twisted Korean tale of familial perversity, just no dialogue. As a father’s infidelity leads to his son’s all too literal emasculation, as the same actress plays both vengeful mother and wanton mistress, as the genital transplants pile up, Kim Ki-duk looks to be successfully auditioning for the role of Asian cinema’s Lars von Trier. He’s both giggling at the outrage he provokes and yet somehow deadly serious (isn’t he?) at the hornets’ nest of depraved emotions aroused.
The longer it goes on and the more hysterical it becomes, the clearer Kim’s strategy to keep his actors dumb makes sense. The entire film operates at a pitch outside and beyond words. It’s not Kim’s first experiment along these lines (the earlier 3-Iron’s central couple say nothing until the film’s final scene), but the strategy feels more justified in Moebius: if your primal scream stays silent, who can tell if that rictus grin is pleasure or pain, or an infinite loop hell-bent on merging the two? We’re saying nothing.
To our list above, you voted to add these great films with scant dialogue…
- The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
- Alice (Jan Svankmajer, 1988)
- Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, 2015)
- The Last Battle (Luc Besson, 1983)
- 3-Iron (Kim Ki-duk, 2004)
- The Miners’ Hymns (Bill Morrison, 2010)
- Themroc (Claude Faraldo, 1973)
- The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse, 1956)
- Little Fugitive (Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Raymond Abrashkin, 1953)
- Mon oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)
Speechless you weren’t when we asked you what we’d missed from this list of films that get by with little or no dialogue. The suggestions came in thick and fast. We’d included Belleville Rendez-vous; fair enough, you said, but what about Sylvain Chomet’s equally enchanting later film, The Illusionist? That film came out on top this week, with lots of support too for other animated fare such as Jan Svankmajer’s inimitably surreal version of Alice in Wonderland (though that film does include substantial narration) and the recent hit Shaun the Sheep Movie.