The Quiet Room:
A child’s silence
by Stuart Fischoff, Ph. D.
Director: Rolf de Heer
Year of Release (1996)
The Quiet Room is that rare film which
presents the world through the eyes of a child, not as an
adult presumes it might be, but as the child understands it
to be. It is a film which explores the tattered remains of
a marriage that, to the ken of a child, has inexplicably begun
the painful slide into the abyss. It is a film about a crack
in the family that, in many ways, is as unfathomable to the
audience as it is to the child.
And that is how a collapsing marriage should
look when we are viewing it through the eyes of that child.
The Quiet Room explores the child’s
heroically naive gambit to bring that slide to a screeching
halt so that her world can right itself and life can go on
as it once did, as a triad of love.
Refreshingly, the child’s gambit is not
active hostility or cry-for-help self-destructiveness. It
is something far more powerful than actions and words. It
is...silence! The Quiet Room’s success is in
no small part due to its dramatically understated yet psychologically
illuminating journey into the rarely charted cinematic waters
of elective mutism.
Elective Mutism: An unwillingness to speak
even though one is capable of speech. The disorder is not
something that routinely splashes across the big or small
screen. It is one of the more difficult disorders to dramatize
precisely because it is not especially exciting to watch.
There is no hysteria, no overt paranoid delusions, not even
a few servings of word salad. Cinematically, elective mutism,
before The Quiet Room, has been about as riveting
as watching a corporate accountant cook the books (give me
an on-screen mugging any day).
Nine years ago I was a consultant on the TV
series Peter Benchley’s Dolphin’s Bay ( I know,
I know, Peter Benchley’s what? ). The drama was produced
by Paramount Television and took place -- and in fact was
shot in -- Australia. The show dealt with a widowed marine
biologist whose teenage daughter had elected to be mute. The
device simply could not sustain even a season’s episodes.
Dolphin’s Bay was canceled just as I cashed the check
for my last script consult.
With The Quiet Room the Aussies have
tried it again. And damn it if they haven’t made elective
mutism interesting, even dramatic. Not edge of the seat dramatic,
mind you, more cerebral than visceral, but dramatic nonetheless.
The Quiet Room works, in part, because
it takes the viewer inside the child’s mind as she narrates
events, past, present, and future. We hear her but her parents
don’t. She struggles to make sense of the gradual collapse
of her safe, secure world. We see her mind jump back and forth
in time, comparing what her life was when she was three, with
what it is at seven and frightfully, what it might be in all
the mornings to come.
We marvel at how this child comes upon a gambit
of silence. We admire the logic that spawned it. Words are
extensions of our minds and limbs. With our words we reach
out across space and grab hold of people, stopping them dead
in their tracks. There’s magic in them thar’ morphemic
hills. Ironically, we, the homo verbums of our species (“Words,
I never leave home without them”), often forget the
power that these insubstantial forces exercise as much by
their absence as their presence. Yet for a seven year old,
one for whom words are still wondrous tools, but for whom
their power has failed, it is perhaps easier to recognize
that their absence might be just what the doctor ordered.
A little girl might just muse: “If I
talk, Mommy and Daddy ignore my pleas. If I cry and tell them
I’m afraid, they provide only teasing lulls and then
reignite. They reassure me but then beat each other up with
my tears. What happens if I don’t cry? What happens
if I don’t talk? Let’s see. Oh look, Mommy and
Daddy pay more attention to me. I don’t get them upset
by the things I say. I can control them by saying nothing!
They can’t divorce if they have to worry about me...what’s
that saying Daddy told me...oh, yes, silence is golden.”
While The Quiet Room is a fictional
tale, it is not sitcom froth topped off by a feel-good finale.
As much as the young girl might want to believe she is the
center of the parents’ universe, as much as the parents
try to make her believe that she is, the parents are the true
center to each other’s universe. Until that center stabilizes,
the g-forces will inevitably pull them back into the abyss
of discord and the threat of dissolution.
Those who counsel married couples should see
The Quiet Room. Those engaged in fighting their own
marital wars should see it with their children. No, not to
provide the child with some new coping strategy; but to reveal
that someone can understand what children might be thinking.
It may even be a tool to enable them to break through to the
battling titans/parents of their lives; let them know that
the events swirling and curling before a child’s frightened
eyes are, as the film’s seven year-old tells us, “hurting
Rating: 3 Siggies