(La antena) Esteban Sapir / Argentina / 2007
From a narrow modern perspective one problem with many silent films which use inter-titles to display dialogue is that they can break up the pace of a film. La antena (The Aerial) stands out for the inventive approach to conveying silent film in a world that has sound. Black and white with a near continuous score, dialogue is displayed on screen when characters speak, similar to a comic: the words are a visual constituent of the world they appear within. Dialogue is given shape and form in the moments it appears in to fit with the look of the scene and the content of the dialogue. Often the words are like 60s typography (like in the magazine OZ for example) where the words are all blown up and irregular.
So, for example, two villains converse whilst being overseen by the hero of the piece. Because their words are visual and part of this world, they are obscured by the giant collars of a man's coat! As the talkers move, the hero (and us) are finally able to see what is being said but this is one of the few times where the idea that characters are conversing throughout in a written graphic medium is explicit to the way in which they interact with their world. This reaches delightful heights of whimsy when some heavies try to shoot the heroes with machine guns. Rat-tat-tat's literally stream across and fill the screen as the bullets fly. Or where a central blind character can only understand what others are saying by touching their mouths – literal lip reading (or touching)!
Set in an oppressive city inspired by the Art Deco vision of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, director Esteban Sapir creates a world where the population have been stricken of their voices with the exception of a single woman. Aptly named 'The Voice' she sings dolefully on a television channel run by the ruthless Mr TV. When an inventor and his family are drawn into Mr TV's machinations a struggle to control the world's words ensues. For a film based around words, the much 'spoken' mantra 'They strip us of our voices but they can't take away our words' signposts the direction the plot is going in.
Deliberately setting out to work with the form of a film Sapir name checks all over the place in his influences. La antena clearly owes a debt to the Soviet silent film-makers, particularly Vertov, as Sapir toys so ably with the very concept of a silent film being made by a crew who can do sound. In this sense the film is analogous to more populist (and anglophone) films like Pleasantville where the colour and its absence are part of the plot. Visually the film loves using depth and keyholes to give it a distinct look. The debt to Lang and other German expressionists is also there but far less well exploited. The city has an odd composite feel, design and costume wise, which is only really escaped by the end.
As a director with a strong advertising and shorts background, Sapir seems much like an arthouse version of say Michel Gondry or David Fincher. He takes an idea which sets up a construct, and plays with it visually. La antena is reminiscent of Gondry 's and Fincher's shorts but is more ambitious in comparison to their features. The biggest similarity to La antena is probably from the work of Guy Maddin: La antena is probably the best Guy Maddin film that Maddin himself has neglected to make.
The downsides of the film are the occasional Latin American sentimentality and the occasional jokey humour at the expense of the scenario (but given the semi-self awareness of their state even this fits somehow). The worst excess is the decision to base the visual design of Mr TV's villainous scheme on the Metropolis robot-maria awakening look – but to place Voice on a swastika! Oh dear. In opposition the good guys end up sticking her son on a Cross of David. At the very least it's a poor visual gag that sticks out in a good film, at worst it's bound to be offensive to someone.
Complete with a predictable yet cleverly handled resolution, La antena throws its hat into 'a film from 2007 you must watch' barely a month into the year.