Film: Sentinels of Silence / Centinelas del silencio (1971)

September 3, 2014 | By


SentinelsOfSilence_VHSFilm: Excellent

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Genre:  Documentary

Synopsis: Oscar-winning short on Mexico’s ancient Aztec and Mayan ruins, as photographed through gorgeous aerial cinematography.

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Although filmed in straight 35mm, Sentinels of Silence has the visual scope and splendor of an IMAX film, capturing several of Mexico’s coastal and inland archaeological jewels. With a camera strapped to a helicopter, director Robert Amram filmed the ruins of Mexico’s Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, Mitla, Tulum, Palenque, Chichen Itza and Uxma, gliding around the locations and conveying their immensity using a wide angle lens, plus Mariano Moreno’s modernistic orchestral score.

Beginning at dawn, the camera glides though a misty mountain range before approaching the first of several towering ruins, and Amram utilizes the helicopter to pull off several stunning shots in which the camera tracks up the long, wide staircases to the top of ancient Mayan, Aztec, and Toltec pyramids, beautifully conveying the bulk of these massive structures built by hand, and used in ancient religious and sacrificial ceremonies.

Cinematographers Gustavo Olguin and Jim Freeman (To Fly!) also fill each shot with maximum colour, capturing the verdant greens, ocean blues, and warm brown and grey tones of the crumbling ruins and intricate carvings of better-preserved structures. The visuals also reflect Freeman’s own sensibilities, always keeping the camera airborne and in motion, allowing perspectives to sprawl across the screen, almost celebrating piercing lens flares, and ensuring each camera motion seamlessly glides into another fresh, gorgeous composition.

The editing is unusually brisk, and if there’s any flaw in Sentinels, it’s Amram’s decision to avoid lingering, staid camera positions, and reveal finer details of the ruins. The film was largely shot from a moving helicopter (some shots begin with a close up before the camera rises to downward views of a whole complex), and each site is given about the same screen time, so there is a trade-off in terms of exploring any singular ruin in greater detail.

Unlike traditional IMAX film, which tend to balance strong imagery with facile narrative tracks and the periodic use of a commercial song or two, Sentinels features a concise yet fact-based narration, performed by Orson Welles in the English dub track, and Ricardo Montalban (who’s quite superb with his resonant voice) in the Spanish track. Most of the details address estimate time periods, locations, and provide brief backgrounds on a few highlighted structures, but Sentinels is really told through visuals and music, with composer Moreno cycling through a handful of theme variations that evoke a sobering awe for the ancient cities rather than an imagined era or contemporary bombast.

Paramount Pictures was the short’s original theatrical distributor, and the film won two Oscars – Best Short Film and Best Short Documentary (the first and last time in the Academy’s history), after which the Academy splintered the Short Film into Narrative and Documentary categories.

The Mexican government reportedly shows the film at official events and embassies as a promotional tool, and although the film was released on tape by ALTI Publishing, it has yet to make the leap to disc. At this stage, a DVD seems pointless, since Sentinels deserves a full Blu-ray special edition, sporting both language tracks, ideally an isolated score track, and some interview material on this extraordinarily beautiful film.

Whereas the Spanish dub version is available on YouTube (with optional English subs), the English version can be seen on Vimeo, sporting a cleaner image with gorgeous colours.

Director Amram, who had previously worked in Britain and made The Mini-Affair (1967) and the short Dolly Story (1968), made several films for Mexican-based producer Manuel Arango, including Sentinels of Silence (1971), Sky High (1974), Pacific Challenge (1975), and the TV productions The Great Eclipse (1992) and Clipperton: Isla de la passion (2004).

Amram’s solo works include Alfa 78 (1978) and  the cult feature-length documentary The Late Great Planet Earth (1979).



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



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