Review: Berberian Sound Studio (2013)

Berberian Sound Studio


Peter Strickland
Peter Stickland
92 min.
Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohamed, Chiara D’Anna, Tonia Sotiropoulou
MPAA Rating
Not Rated

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It would be easy to describe Berberian Sound Studios as a behind-the-scenes look at the sound effects world where foley artists craft ingenious effects from everyday items. However, the realm of Italian horror films carries dark themes and seeps into our consciousness in ways few films could manage.

Set during the high period of Italian Giallo horror, Gilderoy (Toby Jones) has travelled at his own expense to a prominent director’s sound studio where he hopes to work with the legend while crafting his new film’s horrific soundscape. Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) is a hands-off director whose passions run deep, his sudden appearance marks a turning point in the film’s narrative as Gilderoy begins spiralling out of control, frustrated by Santini’s right-hand man Francesco Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco) who threatens, belittles and extorts Gilderoy, slowly breaking down his resistance and interest in making a great and aurally pleasing film.

The sounds of slaughter, stabbed cabbage, fried oil, smashed watermelons seep into Gilderoy’s mind as he struggles to finish a film that eventually becomes a torture for his delicate, unassuming sensibilities. The process of working on the film transforms him into someone entirely foreign to the audience and to the character himself.

Jones was the perfect casting choice for this role, his meek carriage and unperterable personality make a terrific mold onto which the film’s darker themes can be fashioned and altered. Jones gives Gilderoy a thin veneer that crumbles away as his sanity begins to fade. We share his anger, frustration and mental disturbance.

The rest of the cast, working entirely in Italian (the film is predominantly subtitled), is superb, led by the grating Fusco whose egoism captures the overbearing dominance figures in our own lives often take. Fatma Mohamed plays one of the actresses in the film sharing her frustrations with Gilderoy and helping plant the seeds of frustration and isolation he eventually feels. Her performance is meant to symbolize the types of characters often slaughtered or redeemed in the Giallo horror films.

The film is an ode to the Italian horror genre in which it is set, influenced by the tone and pace of those pictures and resembling in no small part films from prominent directors of the genre such as Dario Argento whose Suspiria marks one of the film’s obvious influences. That we never see an inch of footage from the film Gilderoy’s designing the soundwork for adds to the mysterious world around him. Punctuated by a narrator intoning reel markers and the contents of the scenes in question, we learn the film’s dark plot and begin to wonder as this film unfolds how much of those rituals being filmed are affecting the real world.

As a work of plotted fiction, Berberian Sound Studio doesn’t easily resemble many films currently being produced. It’s asymmetric structure and loose thematic cohesiveness play well into the audience’s off-kilter appreciation of the subject. We never get the resolution we want, but our minds are opened to the possibilities of the myriad worlds into which our protagonist can travel.

It’s a film that is as in love with the art of foley design as it is Italian horror. Anyone who appreciates the creativity of sound design will find a great deal to love in the film. Not only is it a film about sound effects, but it beautifully engages the audience’s ears as it crafts an aural tapestry as inventive and compelling as any big budget spectacle today. Perhaps moreso, Berberian Sound Studio tries a different approach to filmmaking and succeeds admirably in redefining audience expectations while treating them a gorgeous soundscape and an impressive performance from the gifted Toby Jones.
Oscar Prospects
Potentials: Sound Editing
Review Written
December 17, 2013

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