A muddily solemn study of refugees at an Amazonian intersection of nationalities — and other existential states — turns quite literally luminous in “Los Silencios,” a sensitively observed, patience-rewarding sophomore feature from Brazilian writer-director Beatriz Seigner. Though the ongoing tragedy of the Colombian armed conflict weighs heavily on this intimate portrait of a family riven by it, Seigner’s film isn’t politically portentous. Instead, it uses topical scene-setting for a more lyrical meditation on the liminal nature of refugee identity, drifting into the supernatural to ponder the everyday struggle of living with death in more ways than one. Modest in form but enlarged with strength of feeling and increasingly striking visuals, this Cannes Directors’ Fortnight highlight isn’t an obvious commercial play, but should accumulate boutique distributor interest as it moves calmly through the festival circuit.
After Seigner’s jaunty 2010 debut “Bollywood Dream,” which followed a trio of Brazilian actresses attempting to crack the Indian film industry, “Los Silencios” extends her interest in borders and cultural assimilation. This is a richer, subtler variation on the theme, however, fluidly melding social and spiritual concerns, and sure to resonate with discerning arthouse audiences in a market currently highly receptive to refugee stories. Few, however, have thus far emerged from the fascinating geographical crossing point where Seigner plants her story, into which the real-life experiences of a number of the film’s indigeneous ensemble members have been woven.
On the river-cut border between Brazil, Colombia and Peru lies the small, sodden La Isla de La Fantasia — an island that proves to be aptly named for Seigner’s eventual purposes, but there’s little fantasy in the impoverished lives it houses, mostly in faded, fragile huts built on rickety stilts to protect them from frequent Amazon flooding. Cinematographer Sofia Oggioni approaches it in a long, woozy nighttime take that sets the dreamlike pace for proceedings: The prow of a rowboat cuts through the darkness, delivering grief-wearied mother Amparo (Marleyda Soto) and her pre-teen children Nuria (Maria Paula Tabares Peña) and Fabio (Adolfo Savinino) from the chaos of urban Colombia to relative sanctuary.
Amparo’s elderly aunt (Dona Albina) welcomes them warmly, though the tone of the reunion is clearly sorrowful. Seigner’s screenplay operates more through emotional and behavioral suggestion than outright explication, but it gradually emerges that Amparo has lost her husband Adam (Enrique Diaz) and a daughter in the conflict between Colombia’s government and left-wing rebel group FARC, in which Adam was an active fighter. With their bodies undiscovered, Amparo remains ineligible for reparations: Substantial, empathetic stretches of “Los Silencios” follow her struggle simply to get by in this hard-up new environment, scraping money together for school supplies or desperately seeking employment in local fisheries. Soto, one of a few seasoned players in a beautifully cast film that seamlessly meshes professionals and local amateurs, gives pained urgency and backbone to Amparo’s plight, never grandly succumbing to anguish that simmers in her body language throughout.
Life on the island poses its own challenges and curiosities to the children, meanwhile, with the watchful, withdrawn Nuria (played by Tabares Peña with grave intelligence) learning that all is not precisely as it seems among its weathered, exhausted inhabitants. There may be a ghost community of sorts here, going about its daily business in parallel — and occasionally in civil dialogue — with the living, and the difference between the two groups isn’t necessarily clear. As one Colombian refugee describes herself as left “half-dead” by violent trauma, “Los Silencios” poignantly articulates how war can make ghosts of its victims well before they die.
This ambiguous tension between life, death and whatever lies in between makes bittersweet poetry of the film’s gently twisting final act: After an over-deliberate start, Seigner balances social realism and shivery paranormal activity with arresting, unfussy ease. These fine shifts in tone and genre are rendered in exquisitely evolving visual terms, notably in Oggioni’s tight control of a color palette that expands incrementally from the waterlogged earth tones of the island to eye-searing bursts of soda-pop fluorescents. If there is life after death, “Los Silencios” reassures us that it can be a brighter one.