After breaking out with a debut role in the film that ushered in the Greek Weird Wave and becoming one of his country’s most accomplished theater actors and directors, Christos Passalis makes his feature directorial debut with “Silence 6-9,” a haunting, melancholic love story that plays in competition this week at the Thessaloniki Film Festival.
Passalis’ first feature premiered in the Crystal Globe competition at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where it earned rapturous praise from Variety’s Jessica Kiang, who described Passalis’ “absorbing, surreal, retro-futurist love story” as a “beautifully crafted solo debut.”
“After a beginning unmistakably located deep within the familiarly bizarro, alien reaches of the Greek Weird Wave aesthetic, Passalis’ solo directorial debut gradually distinguishes itself by moving to a more human and humane place,” she wrote.
The film begins one night with a stranger arriving in a strange town. As he walks down a deserted road under the sodium glow of the streetlights, he encounters a mysterious woman — another new arrival, and the only other occupant of an eerie, shuttered hotel operating under the watchful eyes of two shadowy chambermaids.
The story gets stranger still. Aris (Passalis) has been hired to maintain the antenna towers that pick up crackling, fragmented transmissions from townspeople who have mysteriously vanished — messages that are recorded on analog cassette tapes and desperately pored over by the loved ones they left behind. Anna, played by Greek screen stalwart Angeliki Papoulia, performs among the doubles of disappeared local women before an audience of grieving husbands and lovers unable to let go of the departed.
For all its odd trappings, “Silence 6-9” is a film about love, loss and grief — about the universal urge to hold on and the fear of letting go. It pits those inconsolable men, endlessly trapped in a cycle of grief and longing, against the townspeople whose rage against the system takes shape in an angry plea for “No More Cassettes,” even as deeper feelings take root between the newly arrived couple bearing witness to these strange events.
“There are two powers: fear and love. The opposite of fear is not courage — it’s love,” says Passalis. “At the end of the day, the film is about a very scared society. People disappear. Some want to remember. Some need to forget. It’s a scared society. The only way to escape this fear is by loving.”
“Silence 6-9” reunites Passalis and Papoulia, who co-starred in Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 Cannes sensation “Dogtooth,” the film widely credited with ushering in what would come to be known as the Greek Weird Wave. A veteran stage actor and director, Passalis has also frequently collaborated with Syllas Tzoumerkas (“Homeland,” “The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea”). The two co-directed the hybrid feature film “The City and the City,” which premiered in the Berlin Film Festival’s Encounters competition section this year.
In “Silence 6-9,” Passalis worked closely with cinematographer Giorgos Karvelas, production designer Márton Ágh and sound designers Nikos Exarhos, Persefoni Miliou and Kostas Varympopiotis, with an assist from Yiannis Loukos and Antonis Georgou’s melancholy score. Together they constructed “a world off the map,” said the director, an eerie dreamscape sitting “out of time and space” where the viewer “would not be able to understand if it’s 2020, it’s 1980.”
Passalis, who co-wrote the script with Eleni Vergeti, also drew inspiration from Franz Kafka — who he described as “the first cinematographer” — while crafting a world whose odd and seemingly arbitrary rules, such as the nightly prohibition on noise between 6 and 9 p.m., nevertheless hue to their own internal logic. “I wanted to have a very certain and specific mythology. I needed to find some details that would make this myth more believable, more palpable — more specific. To create a universe that is unique for me,” he said.
Much like the inhabitants living in a restless limbo, that universe occupies a strange, liminal space somewhere between waking and dreams. Only slowly over its course does the film begin to suggest a wider world grounded in more recognizable events and meanings — though as with the mourning process he depicts, Passalis resists easy resolution.
“These areas are mysterious by nature. We cannot resolve anything. There are thousands of books written about grief. This only comes to show that this thing cannot be understood,” he said. “We’re just fighting with this. It’s a war. It’s an inner war that can’t be resolved.
“I think we suffer from trying to understand everything — to put things in a safe place. It’s not the point of a film to answer anything. I didn’t want to give a clear ending. There are no clear endings.”
‘The Opposite of Fear Is Love’: Christos Passalis on Grief and Healing in Thessaloniki Competition Title ‘Silence 6-9’