W-film / Les Films du Prieuré

The Art of Silence Review: Silence Is Indeed Golden

Hot Docs 2022

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5 mins read

The Art of Silence
(Switzerland, Germany, 81 min.)
Dir. Maurizius Staerkle Drux
Program: Artscapes (International Premiere)

 

There is immense power in the act of silence. Depending on the situation being silent can be a deafening declaration of one’s emotions, an unspoken consent of another person’s wrongdoings, or a tool for improving one’s mental health. Few artists have understood the versatile strength of the quiet space like actor and master pantomime Marcel Marceau.  In the heartwarming documentary The Art of Silence, director Maurizius Staerkle Drux pays loving tribute to Marceau’s craft, life and legacy.

Staerkle Drux uses his own father, Christoph Staerkle, a celebrated Swiss mime who was born deaf, as an entry point into Marceau’s life.  Much like the legendary mime he idolized, who discovered his love for the art after seeing a Charlie Chaplin film, Christoph’s life was forever changed when he saw Marceau perform as a child.  It was the first time he recalls being able to deeply connect with a story told solely through movement.

Marceau’s ability to convey complex and emotionally rich narratives through his facial and body gestures was remarkable. Like an experienced sculptor moulding clay, he transformed every stage he was on and created numerous masterworks in the process. As his wife and two daughters recount in the documentary, Marceau truly embodied the essence of everything he portrayed regardless of whether he was mimicking a person or an aspect of nature.  Once he put on the iconic white face paint of his famed stage persona “Bip the Clown,” he was a whole other person entirely. It was as if he was going through a metamorphosis with each performance.

While Marceau openly discussed the type of death his characters repeatedly experienced on stage, The Art of Silence notes that he was less forthcoming about his own life as a Jew in France during the Holocaust.  In delving into his early years, when he was simply Marcel Mangel before assuming the name Marceau as an act of resistance, Staerkle Drux’s documentary finds the perfect blend of emotional depth and artistic resonance. One feels the weight of tragedy that fell upon the artist’s family as Hitler rose to power in Europe; and the sense of danger that followed Marceau as he worked with the French Resistance to smuggle Jewish children out of Nazi occupied regions via secret networks.  Through masterful editing, Staerkle Drux’s film brings these moments to vivid life by intertwining archival footage from the war, interviews with his loved ones, and well picked excepts from Marceau’s performances.

Regardless of whether the film is recounting harrowing moments during his youth, or how Marceau used his fame to promote messages of love and not war, The Art of Silence is endlessly fascinating.  In observing Marceau during his various performances over the years, and his eagerness to teach others the art of mime, one understands his intricate level of control and understanding of his body.  This is especially evident when Staerkle Drux focuses on how Marceau’s family, including his grandson, attempt to capture the essence of his movements for a tribute production they are constructing.

It is a testament to Marceau’s career that many still shower him with praise and try to encompass the sense of love and selflessness that he conveyed at every stage of his life. For some of his students this ranges from entertaining kids in hospitals to using the pantomime art form to help those with motor system disorders.  An uplifting and resonating work, The Art of Silence is a fitting celebration of an artist who could bring joy and meaning to the lives of many around the globe without saying a word.

The Art of Silence premieres at Hot Docs on May 2.

Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association. He can be reached at @smallmind.

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