The most controversial thing Joseph does is to establish a small church choir that averts Latin in favor of singing in German so the common folk can understand the words — although the film is actually in English. Despite the fact that the church has sanctioned such activities, Joseph’s traditionalist superior chides him for it — and especially for allowing a woman to sing with the choir, though it is a spontaneous act on her part.
There are also anecdotal stories of Joseph developing relationships with this local girl, who helps bring in a few other parishioners, as well as a mother whose son is gravely ill, elements that are likely fictional. But they are certainly emotionally fulfilling and advance the story while giving us a better understanding of the character of Joseph Mohr.
And they dovetail nicely into what is historically documented, that Joseph and church organist Franz Gruber bonded through a shared love of music, with Franz composing the music for Joseph’s six-stanza poem. It is also true that when the church organ broke down they recruited the choir to help them debut “Silent Night” with guitar accompaniment during a Christmas Eve midnight mass.
Making a low-budget, independent-period piece, and especially shooting it on location, is no easy task. But “Silent Night” is obviously a labor of love for Vuissa. A native of Austria, he is right at home filming in these location settings, some of which are authentic to the story.
The picture is also very well cast with excellent European actors in key roles, from Joseph’s scowling superior (Clemens Aap Lindenberg) to the two charming women he helps (Janina Elkin and Florence Matousek) to lesser but nonetheless important characters. Markus von Lingen is also terrific as Franz Gruber, displaying a strong screen presence.
And as Joseph, Carsten Clemens hits all the right notes, from his humility as he embarks on his first assignment to his frustration when his attempts to expand the flock are impeded to the joy he feels when he sees the fruits of his labors and, of course, during his musical collaboration with Franz.
In lesser hands the material here could be overwrought or histrionic or sappy and sentimental, but Vuissa keeps the temperature at just the right level throughout. And his script’s economy of dialogue is natural and smart.
For me, “Silent Night” is Vuissa’s most resonant, heartfelt work yet, one that’s sure to join all those holiday perennials in our home for many Christmases to come.
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