Not much happens in "It's All So Quiet," a tender portrait of middle-aged frustrations set on a desolate farm, but nearly every moment is steeped in deep sadness. Dutch filmmaker Nanouk Leopold's adaptation of Gerbrand Bakker's bestselling novel moves with such extreme patience that it's borderline experimental, but the atmosphere ultimately provides a vessel for the tragic backstory only revealed once the feelings takes shape. By then, it's nearly an afterthought; "It's All So Quiet" foregrounds mood ahead of its context, universalizing the emotion therein.
For long stretches of time, Leopold merely sets the scene, then dwells in it. Middle-aged farmer Helmer (the late Jeroen Willems in one of his final credited projects) spends his long, somber days caring his ailing father Vader (Henri Garcin), a bedridden man frustrated by his extreme reliance on his son for the most basic of needs. In a seeming act of defiance to his demanding elder, Helmer moves Vader to the top floor of the farmhouse and reorganizes the lower level to suit his own preferences. That's the most plot the movie offers for a good hour.
Rather than kicking off a new chapter in the reclusive bachelor Helmer's life, the opening moments merely establish the pace of his solitary world. In between the time he spends gazing mournfully out the window and caring for his beloved sheep and cows, Helmer barely interacts with the outside world. He has pleasant exchanges with the affable dairy truck driver (Wim Opbrouk) as well as the two children who visit him from next door, but generally remains so reserved that it appears he has given up on the ability to proactively engage with his surroundings. Cinematographer Frank van den Eeden (who also shot Leopold's previous feature, "Brownian Movement"), relies on the natural light that often casts a pale blue throughout Helmer's modest home, creating an icy feel on par with the protagonist's leaden demeanor.
The persistent tone is nearly ruptured by the arrival of farmhand Henk (Martijn Lakemeier), an 18-year-old boy drawn into Helmer's sullen world and seemingly desperate to free him from it. Like most of the plot, the precise source of Henk's motives is initially unclear, but as the bond between the two men grows, so too does Helmer's willingness to address the cause for his downbeat existence. Leopold boldly masks the stakes of this extremely low key chamber piece in waves of mystery that can often yield frustration as one searches for the big picture -- but once it takes the shape, the pieces come together with powerful clarity.
Avoiding a single tell-all moment, Leopold's screenplay slowly defines the sources of the tension through minor exchanges and thoughtful performances heavy with insinuation. The filmmaker's style invites speculation before allowing it to dissipate in a wave of understated passion. Although easy enough to figure out, the reason for Helmer's grief is so vividly realized through the misery preceding it that the revelation of its root cause is almost unimportant.
More than a heavy drama, "It's All So Quiet" essentially focuses on the morbidity of feeling close to death -- both physically and spiritually -- along with the process of renewal that can follow. Leopold's careful staging of the scenario contains shades of Carlos Reygadas' similarly lyrical and country-set "Silent Light." In both movies, nature takes on definition as a palpable force with greater substance than the precise demons haunting each character. Stillness dominates, from the first shots of cornfields at sunrise to the final one that finds Helmer lying among them. When "It's All So Quiet" comes full circle, the title is virtually an understatement.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? While audiences may receive the film well at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it had its world premiered, its small scale story and lack of commerciality means that it will have a tough time finding a distributor. Its main reception is probably tied to festival screenings.