Preview, March/April 1993
Spirit of the plains
Bringing together talents from two continents and two races, Sam Shepard's Silent Tongue is a ghost story with a difference
Silent Tongue is the kind of film that gives a new meaning to that byword of late 20th-century filmmaking: co-production. Not only does it unite the talents of three very different actors from three different countries, an actor/playwright/musician of almost legendary status, and leading independent production companies from both sides of the Atlantic: it brings a new perspective to a specifically American question - the history of the Native American people.
Heading the cast are the award-winning Irish actor Richard Harris (whose most recent Oscar nomination was for Jim Sheridan's The Field); top British stage and screen performer Alan Bates, whose credits range from such classics as Zorba the Greek and Women in Love to the role of Claudius in the Mel Gibson/Franco Zeffirelli Hamlet; and young American star River Phoenix, whose much shorter career has already included such films as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, My Own Private Idaho and last winter's box-office hit, Sneakers.
The US end of the production team is Carolyn Pfeiffer, a producer with a very untypical experience of working in Europe (where her credits include Fellini's 8 1/2 and Visconti's The Leopard), whose Alive Films has been behind such major independent productions as Trouble in Mind, The Whales of August and Grand Isle, as well as handling US distribution on Jean-Jacques Beineix's French hit, Betty Blue.
The European connection, meanwhile, is represented by Ludi Boeken and Jacques Fansten of Belbo Films (which made the international art-house success, Cross My Heart, and Robert Altman's acclaimed Vincent and Theo) and Le Studio Canal +, the production arm of France's leading cable television channel.
Any chance that such a combination might result in the infamous - and indigestible -'pudding' which is supposed to be the result of too many cooks from too many backgrounds, however, is cancelled out by the presence at the very heart of the film of a writer/director with so strong a voice - and such an overwhelming international reputation - that no amount of additional ingredients could ever cancel out his contribution.
For Silent Tongue is, first and foremost, a Sam Shepard film - a magical tale of a young American, Talbot Roe (River Phoenix), whose half-Indian wife dies in childbirth and who must overcome both his grief at her loss and the powerful ghost which rises from her body and demands that he allow wild animals to devour her mortal remains so that she may enter the spirit world.
The legacy of the Native American has always been part of Shepard's work as a playwright. But, in Silent Tongue his second outing as a writer/director after 1989's Far North - he tackles it for the first time on the big screen. And he brings to it all the passion and all the experience of a quarter of a century at the very heart of the American entertainment business - as playwright-in-residence at San Francisco's Magic Theatre; as a drummer for Bob Dylan; as writer of Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point and Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas; and as star of such Hollywood movies as The Right Stuff, Frances, Crimes of the Heart and Steel Magnolias.
Silent Tongue combines a tragic love story with the excitement of a western, but at its centre is the plight of the Native American peoples, and three of its main actors are Native Americans: Jeri Arredondo who plays Velada, the star of Alan Bates' Kickapoo Medicine Show, who is a full-blooded Mescalero Apache with a jockey's license and enough horseback skills to enable her to perform her own trick-riding stunts; Tantoo Cardinal, who plays the tragic title character, Silent Tongue - a Cree Metis Indian whose previous credits include Black Robe and Dances with Wolves; and Sheila Tousey, a Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee Indian who plays the ghost of Awbonnie, Talbot Roe's bride.
All of their experience - and all of their commitment - is expressed by Tantoo Cardinal. "I found through acting, that I could convey my rage at the injustice and lies that have plagued my people through history," she says. "When it's on the screen, the audience takes what they've seen back to their community."
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