Written by: Heidi Shepler | January 18th, 2023
The Silence (Dalibor Matanic, 2021) 3½ out of 4 stars.
[Content warning: while not gratuitous, The Silence contains graphic depictions of sexual assault against teenage girls.]
The Silence opens in Osijek, Croatia, where a veteran with acute PTSD rides a bicycle along a peaceful river. He’s horrified to see that the river is full of dead bodies, but then stops short and reminds himself to take a picture. He often sees horrors that aren’t there, and looking at the images on his phone breaks the flashbacks. Sure enough, the river is free of dead soldiers … but the dead teenage girl is real. Thus begins a trope that weaves throughout the show, of seeing versus understanding, of choosing what we see and what we turn away from.
The veteran calls the police, who spend hardly any time at all looking at the victim or trying to figure out who she is, apart from tut-tutting at her young age and lamenting that she has no ID on her. A familiar push-pull of competing agendas begins. Inspektor Vladimir, or Vlado (Darko Milas, Once We Were Good for You) insists that the girl was murdered, but his superior doesn’t want the politics of a murder investigation. Stribor (Goran Bogdan, Kick and Scream) is a gifted but financially struggling reporter. He also believes the girl was murdered, but struggles to get Vlado to work with him.
These factors could easily descend into a nihilistic depiction of human selfishness, wherein the police arrest the wrong man just to say they’ve solved the crime, or the reporter divulges information just to get a scoop. The Silence doesn’t do that. Stribor, Valdo, and his partner, Vesna (Sandra Loncaric, The Staffroom), all genuinely care about finding the truth and stopping the murders. Even more so when the first victim’s closest friend ends up dead, too, only a day after making contact with Stribor. They come to realize that they’ve stumbled on a human trafficking ring, involving powerful people in both Croatia and Ukraine. Their obstacle is politics, not incompetence, and the apathy most people feel toward underprivileged victims.
Meanwhile, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Olga (Kseniya Mishina, The Chernobyl Fallout) is facing a similar struggle. She is an incredibly privileged person herself; draped in wealth and married to a Croatian politician, she usually devotes her time to running a children’s charity. But her niece has gone missing, and the people in her organization seem curiously reluctant to help her chase the only reliable lead. She teams up with Nikolaj (Viktor Saraykin, Chuzhie dushi), a retired police officer, who has clearly seen enough pretty teenage girls go missing to know what they’re up against.
Speaking truth to power is possible, this six-part series tells us, but perilous. More than the immediate, predictable danger in a thriller of people being murdered as soon as they become inconvenient, there is a personal cost. Stribor, Olga, Vlado, and Vesna must examine their own attitudes, and the cultural problems they’ve been willing to ignore. The two greatest strengths of the series are acting and cinematography, which work hand in hand with devastating results. One repeated visual symbol is the trope of women’s hair as a symbol of their femininity. Toward the beginning of the series, Vlado stands over the body of a teenage girl, staring down at her hair being gently lifted by the breeze, as he begins to see the full weight of the investigation he finds himself in. Toward the end of the series, Olga receives shattering news. She sits frozen in place, silent and unflinching. The camera then zooms in on the few strands of hair that are displaced by a light touch on her shoulder.
The Silence is not an easy series to watch; there are several moments that are incredibly disturbing, even if they’re not graphic. Likewise, that fact that the show is based on a true story is not comforting. However, it is an incredibly well-made series. The characterization is realistic and the plot is dark, but not hopeless. The price of speaking truth to power may be high, the show tells us, but the price of silence is higher.