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'Sound of Metal' and the stillness of God

the sound of metal

Caviar

Matthew Becklo - published on 12/11/20

A new film tells the inspiring story of a drummer who begins to lose his hearing.

What would it be like to wake up one morning to discover that your sense of hearing—which you had simply taken for granted—had suddenly vanished, and was never coming back? 

This is the question at the heart of Sound of Metal, the impressive feature debut from director Darius Marder. (Spoilers ahead!) The man behind the story, Derek Cianfrance, directed one of the most powerful films of the past decade—a film for which, it turns out, Marder was a screenwriter: The Place Beyond the Pines. Like Pines, Metal is a haunting and immersive work of realism; whereas the former drama takes us into a cross-generational crisis of fathers and sons, the latter takes us, in a masterful way, into the subjective experience of those who experience hearing loss. And again like its predecessor, Metal’s modern story draws us into ancient spiritual waters.   

The film wonderfully unfolds as a kind of triptych painting. The first panel opens on Ruben (played by Riz Ahmed), with the phrase “Please Kill Me” tattooed on his chest, unleashing on a drum set as his girlfriend, Lou, screams out into a dark room, at one point crying: “Purify!” The two are “Blackgammon,” a metal duo touring—and living—out of their RV. But one morning, Ruben wakes up to find he is effectively submerged underwater. Everything sounds dramatically muffled and distant. After making his way to a hearing test and receiving a grim assessment, Ruben tells Lou he wants to plow ahead with the tour. She responds by getting him on the phone with a friend named Hector; even though the high-strung Ruben can’t hear him, he alludes to whether he’s feeling “level” and what his friend would say about “serenity.” It soon becomes clear that hearing loss is not the only issue Ruben is facing; he’s also in danger of relapsing into heroin addiction.

Lou manages to get him to a community for deaf recovering addicts in a rural homestead, eventually leaving him to their care—moving us into the second panel. Ruben’s world has been turned upside down, but he receives a warm welcome in Joe (played by Paul Raci, a native Chicagoan who grew up with deaf parents that were “very involved members” of a Catholic deaf center), a deaf veteran and recovering alcoholic who manages the community. When Joe first sits down with Ruben and Lou, he says that his church may be able to sponsor Ruben’s stay. When Ruben demurs—they’re “very much not into religion”—Joe responds: “Religion plays no part in this, Ruben. The church helps people in need, not religious people.” Later, when Ruben sits in on the group’s circled discussion in American Sign Language, there appears a large crucifix and two candles behind, and between, Ruben and Joe.

Joe, it seems, is being positioned as a kind of spiritual guide to Ruben, and this guide gives him one job: to “learn how to be deaf.” He does this is different ways, including challenging him to go into a room and do nothing but sit—or write. (Ruben’s frustration with this calls to mind Pascal’s adage: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”) While Ruben does visibly gain some measure of peace—a transformation Marder underscores with cuts to the quiet beauty of nature—he eventually decides to sell all he has to get hearing implants and try to reclaim his past. In talking to Joe about the decision, Ruben speaks of the need to save his life, of how everything—including him—passes. Joe responds: “All these morning you’ve been sitting in my study, sitting: have you had any moments of stillness? Cause you’re right, Ruben. The world does keep moving, and it can be a damn cruel place. But for me, those moments of stillness: that place, that’s the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.”

These lines end up becoming the interpretive key for the third panel—indeed, the entire film. Though the “activation” of his implants is a far cry from what he expected, he departs for Paris in a final attempt to find Lou and recover their life together, only to discover a sea of disorienting noise and alien sights. He and Lou share a tender reckoning with their past, but Lou is different; they are both different. In the film’s closing scene, Ruben sits on a park bench, again assaulted by street sounds. The noise crescendos with the distorted clanging of a church bell tower across the street, perched beyond a statue of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child in the foreground. Ruben then rips the augmented attachments from the back of his head, immersing him, and us, in a long silence: a silent letting go of the past, acceptance of the present, and openness to a new future—and the stillness of the kingdom of God.

As a story of spiritual healing, Sound of Metal finds an analogue—interestingly enough—in the story of Jesus physically curing a deaf man. In the Gospel of Mark, we read: 

They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. (Mark 7:32–36)

As Bishop Barron explains in a homily on this story, there is indeed a physical healing being described here. But there is also a spiritual sense to the healing: deafness can be read as the inability to hear and act on God’s voice, on his word. To be spiritually deaf is to be immersed in the sounds of grinding metal within and the “cacophonous voices” of the world outside. Like the prophet Elijah, they need to learn to hear God and experience his power not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:13). This is precisely why Jesus, Bishop Barron goes on to explain, “took him aside in private,” away from the crowd. Jesus is leading him to “a place of silence and communion and contemplation”; he is leading him to the Church.

This is, in many ways, the story of Ruben’s journey—which culminates, curiously enough, outside of a church. Physically, the deaf man in Mark and Ruben in Sound of Metal follow opposite paths: the first is brought from deafness to hearing, the second from hearing to deafness. But read spiritually, they follow precisely the same path: from alienation from God to openness to him—from drowning out his voice to finally starting to hear him. Ruben’s deafness is not a curse of fate; rather, it is his “Ephphatha,” his invitation to find freedom and peace.  

When the credits roll on some films, you know it was a one-shot deal—you’ll never be passing by that way again. When the credits roll on others, you look forward to the chance to watch it again. Sound of Metal is definitely the latter kind of film. Ahmed is wonderful in the leading role (as is everyone else), offering a raw, believable, and memorable performance. Its profoundly human story, creatively executed and beautifully told, will open up a greater understanding of and attentiveness to the deaf community. But Sound of Metal also offers a spiritual insight of universal significance and power: that one can be deaf and really learn to listen—and “have ears, and fail to hear” (Mark 8:18). 

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