‘Not a Word’ Review – Learning to Talk / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase

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A female conductor is rehearsing Mahler’s 5th Symphony while undergoing a personal crisis. Sounds familiar? If you’re thinking Tár, you’re not wrong. But if you think it’s only Tár, then you’re missing out on something special: a gem of a film with the same one-sentence premise that was tucked away at one of the sidebars at the Toronto International Film Festival, under the ominous name Not a Word. But perhaps the shadow of the multi-million dollar fictitious biopic could help shine the spotlight on its very, very distant cousin. It’s time for women conductors to take center stage.

Hanna Slak, the director of Not a Word, is Slovenian-German, but she was born in Poland, so a European sensibility shapes her films, as it has saved them from becoming a “festival mainstream.” This is what I call a species of arthouse film that could have been made any time and anywhere in Europe, with brooding protagonists and either too little or too much dialogue. Of course, this is a hefty generalization, but for the purposes of this review, it suffices to say that there must be something that makes such a film stand out in the European context. It’s even easier when one can compare with a studio production based on a (relatively) similar narrative to make a point about independent, small-scale productions. But instead of pitting them against one another, it seems more fruitful to see these two films side by side. Needless to say, both stand on their own feet.

In Not a Word, Nina (Maren Eggert) is not only a hugely successful conductor in Munich, she’s also a divorced mother of a teenager who is having difficulties in school. The film’s beginning sees him in a classroom, opening up a window with what seems like a clear intention to jump out of it. A cut to black obscures the real motive as well as the aftermath, until both his mother and his (usually absent) father come to see him at the hospital. Lars (Jona Levin Nicolai) is an angsty teen who talks very little, almost the epitome of teenhood stereotypes, but not quite. He lashes out and he states his desires and hate quite loudly. But he also retreats, and he can be attentive—if it wasn’t as true to life, one would think it’s posturing. Upon his request to visit a French island during winter time, Nina decides to take time off rehearsals before the Mahler concert, a decision that is quite clearly at odds with the stone-cold professionalism she thrives on. 

Then the film really begins: days pass, silences reign, tension brews. A subplot reveals that a girl from Lars’s school has been found dead and his reticence and aggressive denial bring up suspicion not only in the viewer, but also to his mother. It’s not that we align with her, not at all, for she has even less information than us as an audience. Unsurprisingly, the fact that she takes a long time to catch up on his irresolvable trauma says a lot about her approach to mental health. That said, the film does not confine itself to a self-absorbed middle-class drama where characters are forced by external factors to finally confront their true feelings. It does borrow some of the building blocks of such a subgenre, but it does attend to a strange mother-son relationship that cannot be explained away with class.

Maren Eggert has a talent for silent acting. Her standout performance in Angela Schanelec’s Silver Bear Best Director winner film I Was at Home, But paves the way for another kind of mother character in Not a Word. Nina is removed and composed at the same time; she has the career footing that Schanelec’s Astrid didn’t, at least not in the same way. Instead, Eggert here channels the unspoken strains of her character’s backstory into bursts of emotional outbreak that seek a justice she cannot grant herself. It may seem a bit too self-centered, but the role of Nina is finely tuned; it gradually opens up to actually include that of her son, so they can meet each other, maybe for the first time.

Slak turned to Mahler for inspiration when writing the film. Even more, she decided to adapt the 5th Symphony into a filmic narrative and let herself be guided by the cadence of music, which then would take the shape of words on a page before becoming a moving image. More importantly, the director turned her gaze inward, exploring the psychological stakes of a complicated parental relationship without letting anyone have the final word: not the mother nor the son. By drawing attention to the lack of mutual understanding, Not a Word advocates for dialogue, even if it comes at a cost.

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