I wonder whether the title of Mauro Herce’s film is the most fitting of any slow film I have seen. I don’t think you can find a better title for what is shown in the film. Herce, a Spaniard, takes us on a journey through the Atlantic Ocean. On board of a giant ship – a cargo ship it seems – we spend day and night observing day-to-day events. In some ways, Dead Slow Ahead is very similar to Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s Transatlantique, a superb film also set on a giant ship, also set somewhere in the ocean far, far away from civilisation. I wonder whether Herce has been influenced by that film. Some scenes, though not a lot, seemed to me to be astonishingly similar to what I saw in Transatlantique. But perhaps this is simply the nature of being on a giant ship, trying to make it look mysterious and…well, massive.
Dead Slow Ahead is, perhaps, a sort of photo album with sound and very little movement. In many cases, Herce choses almost extreme close-ups so that it is impossible to see where we actually are. The persistent use of close-ups transmits the feeling of claustrophobia on the ship, being somewhere, nowhere, just surrounded by huge walls of metal. This somewhere-nowhere becomes rather poignant when we hear warnings through a telephone speaker that water is seeping through the lower part of the ship. A male voice describes it as a disaster. He warns that the wheat stored on the ship gets wet. All this happens around 15min into the film. Perhaps earlier, perhaps later. Time doesn’t have a meaning in this film. Nor does space. Anytime, anywhere. What does matter is the viewer’s concern that s/he might witness a real disaster unfolding on screen. The very tight close-up shots before water penetrated the ship already creates a tense atmosphere. The persistent warnings for a minute or two only reinforces this and made me feel ill at ease.
Throughout the film, Herce doesn’t let go of this tightness. He does use long shots here and there, but they show massive structures on board the ship. We’re either imprisoned by close-ups, or utterly overwhelmed by the sheer vastness, the sheer size of a man-made monster that never reaches its destination. The film has an eerie feeling to it, not only because we are locked up in the belly of a ship without destination. Herce plays a lot with sound. There is something what I would like to call “tunnel audition” or “tunnel sound” if those terms don’t exist yet. The director silences all sounds but one, and that one is highlighted, artificially increased in volume, and muffled. It reminded me how my hearing was just before I fainted a couple years ago. It’s a very odd sensation that you cannot quite put into words, but I found that Herce’s play with sound comes very close to what I felt at the time.
The combination of close-up images you need to decipher and a sound you cannot always locate, Dead Slow Ahead is partly a disorientating film. It challenges our expectation of certainty, but it also rewards us for staying with it. The cinematography is beautiful, stunning at times. The journey on this giant ship is haunting, it is claustrophobic. And yet, it is liberating somehow. I know that this possibly contradicts everything I have said above. But Dead Slow Ahead is a weird film. It’s imprisoning, it’s liberating. It’s ugly, it’s beautiful. It’s claustrophobic, it’s vast. It’s suffocating, it’s breathing.
What is this film? I could go the long way of bringing up Daniel Frampton’s filmind again, which I still find fascinating, but I better leave it here and simply recommend this film. To everyone! Kind of wished I could secure the films for tao films VoD. Maybe we’re lucky and it’ll happen one day!