(Czech Republic, Slovakia 2022; Dir: Francesco Montagner)


Echoes of Silence

review by Laura Stoeckler


length: 15

year of production: 2022

country of production: Czech Republic, Slovakia

director: Francesco Montagner

production: Veronika Kührová, Michal Krácmer, Henrieta Cvangová, Juraj Krasnohorský

director of photography: Michal Babinec

editing: Jorge Sanchéz Caldéron

cast: Jose Luis Martín Moro

festivals: Locarno International Film Festival 2022, Riga International Film Festival 2022, Guanajuato International Film Festival 2023, FILMFEST DRESDEN 2023,

© images: 'Asterión' (Francesco Montagner)

Silence is powerful. It speaks volumes in arguments, can make or break hard conversations, and can even shape the outcome of legal proceedings. In cinema, silence holds a different position: its conquest is often regarded as remarkable, as the facilitator of greater artistic freedom and expression. It can provoke emotions, provide characterization and narrative support, and it completes the mimetic cinematic experience. Filmmakers masterfully employ various techniques to harness the power of sound: from foley and sound effects to voice-overs, soundtracks, and film scores. Still, we often consume sound subconsciously, as the overwhelming presence of visual elements such as cinematography, editing, or colour grading overshadows it.

Nevertheless, the absence of sound in a film is impossible to ignore. In the case of Francesco Montagner’s ‘Asterión’, deliberately devoid of sound throughout its 15-minute runtime, the complete elimination of sound elements might be the first thing you notice. You might even wonder if you will be able to engage with the film. However, the opposite is the case: ‘Asteriòn’ is exceptionally visceral and vivid. It establishes tension and suspense right from the beginning, juxtaposing blue-tinted interior scenes with those that emanate the warmth of a sunlit arena. The arena stands in silent solitude, seemingly detached from time itself—a motionless, anonymous architecture, unoccupied except for a restless black bull. As it charges through the building’s resounding emptiness, the absence of film sound does not stop the clamour from echoing in our minds: the deep resonant thuds of the pounding hooves, the bull’s laboured breathing. Just as if we are dreaming, we know the sounds that are supposed to be connected to the images shown on screen.

The editing further infuses the film with an ethereal quality, immersing us in a dream-like experience where we find ourselves newly arrived, gradually unravelling the elements of time and place. Only scattered bits and pieces of information are provided in the following scenes; a comprehensive view or explanation is deliberately withheld. Our encounters with the bull are mostly in fragments as we are shown glimpses of the animal’s galloping legs, steaming mouth, and focused eyes. Its complete form is rarely revealed. Through strategic point-of-view shots, we are drawn into a shared experience with the captive creature. The camera spins around the arena, mirroring the disorienting experience of being trapped within it as if we are desperately seeking for an escape ourselves. The fleeting glimpses and unsettling perspectives deepen a sense of urgency and suspense as the bull relentlessly continues its hopeless fight against the arena’s unyielding wooden gates.

Meanwhile, within a cluttered and dimly lit workspace, a man’s bloodied hand causes the tap’s running water to take on a reddish hue. Only a few moments later, we reencounter the bull, this time motionless, dead, its massive body placed on a large surgical table and covered with a bright white cloth. The man begins to run his hands through the animal’s fur, his touch not a caress but inquisitive, calculating. Gradually, an uncanny resemblance emerges between the bull and the man, their shared black and slightly curly hair meticulously framed, initiating a series of shots spread throughout the remainder of the film that blurs the lines between the protagonists’ respective body parts visually and narratively. For instance, we see the man’s head disappearing behind the bull’s massive silhouette, his hands delving into its body to extract the organs. At another moment, a solitary drop of the bull’s blood runs down the man’s neck after he separates the animal’s head from its body.

The visual fragmentation of body parts now transcends metaphor, delving into the realm of literal dissection and dismemberment as we witness the bull’s slow transformation from a being once alive into a dead piece of meat. Simultaneously, the human protagonist undergoes his own transformative journey, a self-imposed surgical intervention designed to let him transcend his identity. As the man fervently sews the bull’s skin onto his own, the framing still detaches his arm from his body, making it hard to tell if what is shown on screen even is a human arm, covered by coarse black hair that resembles almost all too closely those of the animal he is set to become.

As the images become increasingly disturbing and morbid, the camera retains its relentless proximity. Static and still shots predominate, creating a sense of gruesome objectivity while documenting the procedure with uncomfortable intimacy. The images fill the screen—there is nothing but flesh, skin, and hair. It is tempting to argue that the sound further complements these images. But how can sound that is not physically there, sound that is not in the film, feel complementary? Just as the bull’s once-thundering hooves reverberated in the chambers of our mind’s ears, the haunting scenes on-screen now ignite our imagination, conjuring up the ghastly sounds of flesh ripping apart, a needle pushing through skin and fur. Inescapable and profoundly personal, these visceral soundscapes resonate with our own bodies and brains, infiltrate our senses and cause us to cringe and recoil in our seats while the man continues his feverish quest for metamorphosis.

As the bull fights fiercely to escape the confinements of the arena, the human protagonist in ‘Asterión’ grapples with his struggle to break free, trapped within himself rather than within built structures. To liberate himself from his own physical being and achieve true freedom, he starts to make drastic changes to his appearance, striving to become the embodiment of the film’s central character: Asterión, the legendary Minotaur from Greek mythology, trapped by both physical and societal constraints. Feared and shunned by society, he never ventures past the (unlocked) gates of the labyrinth within which he spends his days. It can only be assumed why the man desires to transform into this mythological creature; whether to align his outward appearance with an inner sense of feeling monstrous or to attain the Minotaur’s fearsome yet somehow respected status. Regardless of the motives driving the man’s quest or the extent of his physical transformation, he, like the bull and the mythological Minotaur, remains powerless in the face of destiny and the inevitability of death. Despite all the efforts undertaken, and the pain endured, his metamorphosis ultimately seals his demise.

Like a dream, ‘Asterión’ ends abruptly without a warning or further explanation, sending us out of the cinema’s darkness with hazy thoughts and memories. After a demanding cinematic experience like that, we are perhaps glad to escape the nightmarish psychology we have just lived through and hope to resume our own lives and our own wishes for transformation and escape. Or maybe we continue to ponder these images, the echoing ‘sounds’ and ideas, sit with the film and see where our thoughts take us. Even if it is only to realise that however irritating the lack of sound might have felt at the film’s beginning, our imagination has proven more than sufficient in conjuring the necessary auditory experience.

This text was developed during the European Workshop for Film Criticism #1 — a tandem workshop set during FILMFEST DRESDEN and Vienna Shorts — and edited by tutor Ricardo Brunn.

The European Workshop for Film Criticism is a collaboration of The END - European Network for Film Discourse and Talking Shorts, with the support of the Creative Europe MEDIA program.