(USA, 89 min.)
Dir. Jasmín Mara López
WARNING: Silent Beauty and the following review discuss child sexual abuse.
Jasmín Mara López was an adult when she told her family that she was sexually abused by her grandfather at 10 years old. As López began the healing process, she had no idea that her brave step forward also marked the beginning of the journey for other members of her family. Silent Beauty is López’s moving personal essay of her childhood abuse and her family’s patterned history of silence.
It’s often said that history is told by the victor and for much of López’s life, this victor was her abuser. Throughout Silent Beauty, we see footage of birthdays, Christmases, and other family-oriented holidays through the literal lens of Gilberto, López’s abuser, grandfather, and family videographer. With each clip from the grandfather’s archive, the faces of laughing children and adults take over the screen. However, the joy on the surface never betrays the sinister story that may lie beneath.
When López confronts Gilberto on the telephone, we hear him cast her accusations aside and replace them with complaints of poor health and faulty memory recall. Unmoved, López remains strong and goes as far as opening an investigation against her grandfather with the local county sheriff’s office.
However, Silent Beauty isn’t a Netflix true crime documentary and López’s story isn’t about her journey towards placing the man who caused her so much pain, trauma, and distress in prison. Instead, her tale is about the family secrets that unfolded after she unburdened herself to those closest to her. After revealing her grandfather’s abuse, her cousin tells López their grandfather also sexually abused her. Her sister tells her that their father abused her as a child. Her mother exposes the abuse she experienced at the hand of her own father. Silent Beauty is an account of one family’s trauma that went unacknowledged between generations, and their fight to ensure this pattern isn’t repeated.
In addition to the clips from the López archive, the film inserts recorded telephone calls and intimate conversations between López and her family. Silent Beauty attempts to balance a relaxed approach where viewers are treated as a welcomed guest inside the homes of the López clan with artistic flourishes to break up the dialogue. There are also poetic touches, like an overhead shot of López cleaning dishes while she narrates the lessons her grandfather taught her, including how to clean dinnerware properly, exemplifying how difficult it is for her to move forward when so much of her daily life goes back to him. However, the poignancy of Silent Beauty gets lost at times in the languid pacing. While, of course, the film isn’t meant to be an action-packed thrill ride, it’s easy to miss some details because the same note is being played throughout with little dynamism. That being said, the note it continually plays is incredibly graphic and important.
The story of the López family is unfortunately not unique. Families around the world have inadvertently passed down their abuse for generations and created untenable chains. Through Silent Beauty, López will hopefully inspire and encourage others to acknowledge their personal pain and suffering by the hands of others, and unveil the catharsis and significance in breaking the cycle of abuse.
López ends Silent Beauty by cleansing herself in water, ridding herself of the burden of her silence and that of her ancestors. While she may never feel victorious (what is ‘victory’ in the matter of child abuse after all?), López’s ability to tell her history on her terms finally brings a peaceful conclusion that is welcome and heartening.
Silent Beauty premiered at the 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival.