Essays · Movies

When Words Fail: The Implications of Intentional Silence in Cinema

Less is sometimes so much more.
By  · Published on April 25th, 2017

Less is sometimes so much more.

Before the advent of sound in the movies, silence was an obstacle to storytelling, it was a thing to be covered, interrupted, and worked around. Once sound came along, though, it changed the nature of the relationship between silence and storytelling, taking a once-ubiquitous element and transforming it into something far more meaningful. Silence now was not a necessity, it was a decision, a choice to relay information a certain way, unspoken, or at least unheard by those of us in the audience. In modern cinema, the most blatant example of silence as a storytelling booster can be found at the very end of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, when Bill Murray’s character whispers some mysterious goodbye to Scarlett Johansson’s after their platonic but emotional courtship.

Silence can convey things, thoughts, and emotions words never could, and as such a properly utilized bit of cinematic silence can lead to some of the medium’s most powerful moments, as evidenced by the following video from our talented friends over at Filmscalpel, who have linked together a score of film’s best silent moments after the silent era to illustrate the many impacts willful silence can have on a narrative, a character, and us in the audience. As noted in the video’s written intro, it was French director Robert Bresson who first posited that it was the soundtrack that invented meaningful silence in movies. Behold some of the most meaningful bits of evidence.

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