Soft In the Head – Nathan Silver and the Idiot. (Film Review)


Following on from the superb Exit Elena, comes Nathan Silvers ode to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Soft in the Head, and true to the multiple narrative chaotic blur Silver creates symbols from The Idiot – such as Prince Myshkin – slivered and distributed, so that one character carries the naive beauty of goodness, while another carries the redemptive spirituality of goodness. Just as in The Idiot, a collection of men, among them societies misfits, a physically abusive lover, a man so innocent it is assumed he has a mental or at least social deficiency and a Christian Samaritan who gathers all the lost sheep of the streets of new York City into his home to feed them and give them a safe warm place to sleep, gather around the beautiful Natalia (Sheilla Bethencourt), a young perpetually drunk woman on a vicious path to self-destruction, whose beauty is regularly ravaged by the hazards of the life she leads. As in Exit Elena, Natalia is in the wrong house, and like Elena she is searching for something of a continuous safety, but unlike Elena, Natalia feeds and waters her self-destruction, but in such a way that we are never sure if she is deliberately sabotaging herself or if these are not the cries of a young woman just about to hit rock bottom – perhaps Dostoyevsky would ask if her beauty has coerced the world into an unjust retaliation on her. This is where Silva’s improv acting techniques are so cleaver, the motivations of all the characters are heavily sublimated, we rarely know what drives anyone, and yet Natalia’s world has no time for motivations. It is consequences of actions that matter to her, and there are plenty of them to be had.


Particularly fascinating in Soft in the Head is the split of Dostoyevsky’s ultimate man between two male leads who respond to Natalia very differently. Ed Ryan plays Maury Kane, a christian (Dostoyevsky christian is posited interestingly with Silvas Jews in this film – even to the point of naming the Jews Christ killers, a rather uncouth slang term) who lives in a very sparse apartment that he perpetually opens to the poor among him. He finds our Natalia on the street, after she had been expelled from a Jewish families religious celebrations a consequence of showing up drunk and exhibiting disrespect through poor manners and disdain. Maury’s home is filled with desperate men, at their lowest, pulsing with desire for Natalia as soon as she walks through the door. Maury protects her. He is a peculiar fellow, his christian charity sits on him like dust over a slippery, shiny looking thin face. He is aesthetically, Natalia’s opposite. He is no simpleton, and yet he acts like one (and treats his wards the same) in an effort to reduce life down to its bare essentials.

Conversely, Natalia also comes in contact with Nathan Reh (Carl Kranz). Nathan is Hannah’s (Melanie Scheiner) brother, Hannah being a good friend of Natalia who took her in our of genuine feeling for her destitute friend (homeless because she’d been forcefully evicted by an abusive boyfriend). Nathan is so pure and unblemished, he seems almost simple – he falls in love with Natalia’s beauty immediately, he pursues her inappropriately and assumes they need to marry because she spends a night sleeping in his bed fully clothed. Nathan’s purity is beautiful, and yet stupid, while Maury’s purity is ugly, yet genuine.


Where Exit Elena opened with a woman achieving her final in a quest for qualifications securing her work, Soft in the Head opens with the physical abuse of a drunk Natalia consequently thrown out of her home. The camera that crept constantly close to Elena sits right up at Natalia’s face, so we can see her spots, her drink ravaged skin and the whore-ish smear of her makeup over the top of an instantly recognisable beauty. Silver painted Elena at a low point, working her way up, but his Natalia – true to Dostoyevsky’s Nastassya – appears to be working her way down. Elena, alone and homeless, finds her way to the suburbs and endures their perversity in an attempt to find a home, but Natalia is on the unforgiving streets of New York City, a horrific combination of desperate and very vulnerable. Nathan Silver paints sublime portraits of women, complete and intricate, collaborative and visionary. Both his early works are dark and unsettling, but if Exit Elena uses absurdity and humour to make its dark claustrophobic points, there is little light relief in the exacerbating world of Natalia as she sinks lower and lower, her communication with others a perpetual mismatch as much by her own hand as by fate.

With The Idiot firmly in mind, Silver has built a strange and yet all too familiar modern world, with all the characters and rogues of Dostoevsky’s novel, but including the darkness of Dostoevsky’s point. There are two more films of Silvers coming out this year, and it is a thrilling ride to watch this young film maker come into his own mysterious style.

Ed Ryan as Maury Kane and Sheila Etxeberria as Natalia Béthenco