Toronto International Film Festival 2021. Review of “Silent Land” by Aga Woszczyńska

Aga Woszczyńska’s lusciously tense and deeply observant feature debut, Silent Land, is the story of the dissolution of a middle-class Polish couple over the course of an uncomfortable Italian holiday. The film has just premiered in the Platform Competition program of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Upon their arrival at their rented villa, the first thing the couple notice is that the swimming-pool is empty. Their Italian host accommodates them by rapidly sending over a migrant repairman to fix the problem, but the topless, muscular young man faces a language barrier with the couple from the very start. When he suffers an atrocious accident near the pool, their dolce far niente vacation is suddenly put at risk and, as if it weren’t inconvenient enough, the small town’s police start to sniff around. This unfortunate turn of events puts the strength of the swanky couple’s moral principles to the test. And, their relationship, too. Not only that, but as the island’s police keep on finding loose ends in their statements, and the mercurial essence of the town and its people continue to perturb them, cracks begin to appear between them.

Woszczyńska chooses rigid, contemplative sequences to tell her tale of disrupted beatitude, subtly removing one by one the different layers that make up the fabric of this cold and somewhat entitled couple. In fact, they may appear successful and their days are carefully planned from the very moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep, with an important emphasis on food and drink and a particular fitness and grooming routine, which hardly seems like a vacation. The interaction between the two protagonists is very cold, distanced and the dialogues are scarce, but when they do occur, the conversation is banal and evolves around first-world problems, actions and reactions. They seem like perfect white, blonde, blue-eyed robots. Their connection lacks depth and is devoid of complicity and feelings – even in the bedroom, where their lovemaking is mechanical and repetitive and during which they never interact, let alone look at each other.  As the holiday progresses, their relationship is put to the test, along with their moral values and beliefs, but it is more interesting to observe what happens to the characters individually. Anna does not undergo a colossal transformation. She is visibly shaken and troubled, but the events do not seem to affect her personality or humanity for that matter, a few occasional bursts of laughter and efforts at dancing notwithstanding. On the other hand, Adam is the one who goes through what we could describe as “the hero’s journey,” as his humanity begins to seep through the cracks of his impressively composed and impassive persona.

From the opening scenes, Woszczyńska skilfully sets up a general atmosphere of dread, a tense and strained aura between the couple and in their interactions with others, as if conjuring up the ambience of Antonioni’s films, which she elegantly conveys through her own attentive gaze on human puniness and the small steps steering toward moral decay. Each take is long and static. Each scene is understated and meticulous. Each frame is delicate and rigorous, and Woszczyńska pays considerable attention to the action beyond it. Indisputably an enthusiast of slow cinema, she resolutely takes her time with her characters and scrupulously builds the images on the screen. There is no music as she prefers not to dictate us how to feel. There are no close-ups or reverse shots. With its blue color palette and cold hues, Bartosz Swiniarski’s static and tremendously precise cinematography extraordinarily conspires to almost make us feel the glacial tension, emotional paucity and general state of misery on our own skin. We cannot, in good conscience, feel anything but sadness for the characters for they are truly despicable and there lies the true power of Silent Land, achieved by the extremely exact, nuanced and restrained performances of the leads, Agnieszka Zulewska and Dobromir Dymecki and in contrast the somewhat warmer and looser turns of Jean-Marc Barr and Alma Jodorowsky.

Woszczyńska succeeds in shrewdly portraying the dichotomy between the East and the West, between different civilizations and between different points of view and ways of living. First, in the interaction between the couple and the Arab repairman and the language barrier, their less than subtle disdain and lack of interest toward him, not really perceiving him like a human being, the racism shown here in a subtle yet blatant way. Second, in the way the Italian policemen handle the case and how their perception of the migrant, and finally, and their interaction with the couple. This is exactly how Europe feels towards migrants and Woszczyńska most certainly does not want us to turn our heads or bury them in the sand.

Subtly told, meticulously crafted and confidently directed, Silent Land is a masterclass in slow cinema. True to its title, it is imbued with silence and stillness. It is a veritable cinematic gem.




Production: Lava Films, Kino Produzioni, I/O Post (Poland, Italy, Czech Republic, 2021). Producer: Agnieszka Wasiak. Co-producers: Monica Glowacka, Blazej Moder, Jordi Niubo, Giovanni Pompili. Director: Aga Woszczyńska. Screenplay: Aga Woszczyńska, Piotr Litwin. Cinematography: Bartosz Swiniarski. Production Design: Ilaria Sadun. Costume design: Anna Sikorska. Editing: Jaroslaw Kaminski.

Cast: Agnieszka Zulewska (Anna), Dobromir Dymecki (Adam), Jean-Marc Barr (Arnaud), Alma Jodorowsky (Claire), Marcello Romolo (Fabio), Claudio Bigagli (Giuseppe), Elvis Esposito (Riccardo), Gennaro Iaccarino (Marco), Ibrahim Keshk (Rahim), Cezary Kosinski (voice on the phone)

Color – 113 min. Premiere: 11-IX-2021 (Toronto International Film Festival)




Still credits: TIFF.

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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