While everyone’s getting caught up in the buzz about The Artist, I have a shameful confession to make: silent movies have always bored the bunions off of me – as a child I gnashed my teeth in despair when Charlie Chaplin or, god forbid, Harold Lloyd came on the television. That’s not to write off a genre, and of course the likes of Nosferatu or Metropolis are a different kettle of fish, but with a broad brush stroke, I’ve never enjoyed the over emphasis and gestuality seemingly required of movies without words.
And then along comes Gorbaciof, an Italian movie with a reasonably traditional narrative – a small time gambler, in Naples, falls in love with a girl (a chinese immigrant) and seeks to save her from the clutches of organised crime; it’s not a silent movie, in theory, as it has some dialogue (largely in Neopolitan dialect) and a soundtrack, but its obsession with gestures, facial movements and visual communication make it a direct descendant of the silent movies – and it is superb.
Film director Stefano Incerti has talked about wanting to zoom in and paint a portrait of two characters who would be, at best, side characters in bigger budget movies, to hurl the little streets upon the great as it were, in a Naples that looks like New York in the 1970s. So, at the centre of the film we have Marino Pacileo, a prison treasurer, responsible for banking money given by relatives for the inmates, who is nicknamed Gorbaciof because of his prominent birthmark.
And what a character this Gorbaciof is, played brilliantly by Toni Servillo , who must be at once one of the finest and least recognised actors working in Cinema today (some of his other films include il Divo, Gomorrah, The Consequences of Love); singled out by a red birth-mark, framed by a poorly dyed and cut hair-style that marks him out as a curious mix of vain and unassuming, more often than not he tries to slip into the background – it’s no coincidence that he spends the majority of his time playing poker, where conversation is pared back to its bare minimum. From his hands repeatedly shuffling through wads of cash – a recurring motif in the film – through to a tense scene on the Naples underground where he challenges an alpha-male wannabe simply by pulling a face, 60-70% of Gorbaciof is told almost exclusively through Servillo’s body and gestures.
And here’s the difference with the majority of silent films from the 20’s, where conventions of over-dramatising went hand in hand with a new medium, sparked by a fear that audiences wouldn’t understand unless things were signposted for them, it wasn’t a choice but a necessity (and one which most movie-makers abandoned as soon as technology permitted); In the 21st century producing a film that’s largely silent is a choice, a decision to tell a story in a visual language, and in the case of Gorbaciof there’s no trace of pantomime or exaggeration – every nuanced gesture tells a story, but is completely realistic.
And while it’s grounded in realism – there are no special effects or fancy tracking shots on display – the great thing about Gorbaciof is how it takes these details, these elements of two lives, and manages to conjure metaphor effortlessly from them. An example: the birthmark. A simple physical attribute that gives our character his nickname – perfectly plausible; what is thrown out in the air though, as well, is what effect that nickname and focus on his birthmark has had on his character. We have a character that’s keenly aware of being watched, his eyes constantly and nervously dart around the few locations that make up the film’s world. And while it’s just a nickname, in a very real sense Pacileo is part of different worlds, bridging the gaps between them just as his Soviet counterpart did – and running the same risks.