Film Reviews

A Silence & Spanish Film Festival 2024

Published June 30, 2024
Daniel Auteil has a quiet word with the Press

A Silence doesn’t announce that it’s Based on a True Story, but its origins are not hard to find. In this film by Belgian director, Joachim Lafosse, the crime that looms in the background is that of  paedophile, rapist and serial killer, Marc Dutroux, who kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured a series of young girls from 1985-96. What’s most astonishing is that Dutroux was gaoled for five cases of abduction and rape in 1989, then released after only three years in prison. When he regained his freedom six more victims would follow, four of them murdered.

This is the burden weighing heavily on lawyer, François Schaar (Daniel Auteuil), who is acting on behalf of the victims’ families. The perpetrator is never named, nor the gruesome details of the crimes explored, but it’s an explosive case. François can’t go anywhere without being besieged by reporters. They wait all night in the street in front of his house and grounds, they pursue him in and out of court. In this film it’s the lawyer and his family who are the story, not the invisible, anonymous psychopath he is confronting.

Auteil’s character is based on the Belgian lawyer, Victor Hissel, who acted for the families of Dutroux’s victims and would himself be charged with possession of child pornography in February 2008, when the case was over. He would also be stabbed eight times by his own son, Romain, after an argument.

I’m not giving anything away because the film begins with François’s wife, Astrid (Emmanuelle Devos), in her car, on the way to see the police about her son, Raphaël (Matthieu Galoux), who is in custody. One minute in and we’ve already had the scandal and the crime. The son is in a police cell, the father in intensive care. No wonder Astrid looks stressed. The rest of the movie will explain how we got to this point.

Lafosse’s focus is not on François’s legal wrangles, but on the tensions within the family. The Schaars live in a large, spacious house, with a garden and a high wall. It’s an image of prosperity, but also a fortress and a prison. There’s an outward sense of calm but listen carefully for the sound of skeletons rattling in the closet. We soon learn that François crossed a line twenty years ago, molesting a young relative who now wants to press charges. In representing the families of a sex fiend’s victims, it appears the lawyer is seeking atonement for his own sins. But where does atonement end and hypocrisy begin? Is he doing penance in public or hiding in the light?

The Schaars struggle to maintain a veneer of respectability, but the effort is taking a toll on man and wife, as they try to keep Raphaël from learning about his father’s earlier offence. The lurking problem is what is on François’s computer, as he trawls through the sites frequented by the paedophiles. Is he studying this material to help with his case or because it exerts a morbid, erotic fascination for him? He probably couldn’t – or wouldn’t – be able to say.

Inevitably, Raphaël finds out about his father’s secrets, and plunges into his own psychological maelstrom. Astrid strives to be the dutiful wife and mother, holding it all together, as the walls close in.

This may sound like Oedipus Rex revisited, but there’s no great sense of tragedy. Lafosse’s method is to steadily accumulate detail, turning the screws on his protagonists by degrees. Our knowledge that things won’t end well, lends the film a pervasive sense of fatality. The director relies on our natural curiosity to see how events play out, assisted by the formidable skills of his lead actors.

Auteuil is impressive in the awkward role of a man juggling guilt and paternal love, tortured by his secrets while living in front of the news cameras. Devos is just as good as the wife who has made the difficult decision to stick by her husband, no matter how grievous his crimes. She has done so, at least in part, because of their son, whom they desperately want to be normal. Galoux, on debut, is convincing as the teenager whose disaffection and growing pains are pushed to breaking point by the unspoken tensions within the home.

A Silence is a disturbing, uneasy film, although probably no more so than some of Lafosse’s previous efforts, such as Our Children (2012), about a woman who murders her five children. As a director, he is drawn to the dark side, looking to get beyond shock and horror, to explore the tangled mesh of human misery that ends in banner headlines. It may help us understand these stories, but it doesn’t make them any more palatable.

Kiti Manvér has a thing for Jesus in ‘Mamacruz’


There is always a streak of melancholy in the annual Spanish Film Festival, currently underway in six Australian cities. I’m not about to elaborate on Hemingway’s idea that the Spanish love of life is fuelled by a fierce consciousness of the proximity of death, but he may have been onto something.

This year there is a special focus on female filmmakers in Spain and Latin America. I’ve seen four quality films so far, each by a female director, each tinged with a sense of sadness and futility. The festival opener, Lone Scherfig’s The Movie Teller, is set in a dead-end mining town on the edge of a desert in Chile. When the entire family cannot afford admission to the cinema, the young María Margarita gets the job of going along then retelling the film at home, eventually to a growing audience. This was the most vibrant of the selection, partly because it features so many clips from classic movies.

The Teacher Who Promised the Sea, flashes back and forth through time, from the present day to the years just before Franco’s brutal takeover of 1939. Despite its liveliness, and a great performance by Enric Auquer as an innovative schoolteacher in a provincial town, the shadow of doom looms large.

Isabel Coixet’s Un Amor, stars Laia Costa as a freelance translator who moves to a village where everybody knows everybody else’s business and proceeds to fall into an unlikely love affair. This is a beautifully made film that will reinforce all those prejudices one might entertain about small communities, although the real menace nowadays may not be the peasants, but well-heeled refugees from the city. My final preview was Mamacruz, a comedy about a grandmother who overcomes strict Catholic scruples to rediscover her libido. It stars Kiti Mánver, who may be remembered for her appearances in Almodovar’s early films, such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).

Each of these films is highly recommendable, but even when there is a defiantly upbeat ending, none of our heroes ever manage to escape their fate. While their individual predicaments may not be as drastic as those faced by the Schaar family in A Silence, for these Spanish directors, if a character makes it through to the end of the movie, that counts as a personal triumph. Ole!




A Silence

Directed by Joachim Lafosse

Written by Chloé Duponcelle, Paul Ismael, Joachim Lafosse, Thomas van Zuylen, Sarah Chiche, Valérie Graeven, Matthieu Reynart

Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Emmannuelle Devos, Matthieu Galoux, Louise Chevillotte, Jeanne Chernal, Nicolas Buysse

France/Belgium/Luxembourg, MA 15+, 101 mins




 Spanish Film Festival 2024

Screening in Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney, Byron & Ballina, Brisbane, Adelaide & Perth.



Published in the Australian Financial Review, 29 June, 2024