Phil on Film Index

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Review - Silent Light (Stellet licht)

The most gratifying thing about Carlos Reygadas' spellbinding new film Silent Light is that it marks the point where a talented but difficult young filmmaker matures into a major cinematic artist. We already knew that Reygadas was a gifted director with a distinctive view of the world, from his intermittently impressive but bloated debut JapĆ³n and his provocative but clumsy follow-up Battle in Heaven; but with Silent Light he seems to have found the perfect balance in his approach. The slow, long takes and artfully composed tableaux serve an engaging tale of infidelity and faith here, and as Reygadas unfolds this narrative in his typically languid and unhurried fashion, he creates a film that is both ravishingly beautiful, and profoundly affecting in the most unexpected ways.

The director's predilection for the unexpected is obvious right from the start. He opens the film at night, staring up at the starry sky, before his camera moves downwards and peers into the darkness ahead. A chorus of birds and crickets can be heard, although these sounds gradually die away as the camera slowly moves towards the horizon and dawn breaks. It takes about six or seven minutes for the sun to rise and the sky to fill with light, and Reygadas doesn't alter his pace as he creeps forward, inviting us to drink in the natural beauty of the scene in front of us. It is just about the most beautiful opening shot imaginable; a sublime piece of cinematic magic which completely captivated me for its duration.

Reygadas repeats the trick in reverse at the end of the film, taking a similar amount of time to watch the sun set, plunging the world into darkness once more, and in between he has a straightforward story to tell.
Silent Light focuses on the troubles of a particular family living among the Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonite communities of Northern Mexico. Johan (Cornelio Wall) is a good man, he loves his wife Esther (Miriam Toews) and their six children, but he has also fallen in love with Marianne (Maria Pankratz), a local waitress, and he doesn't know which way to turn. His father advises Johan that this temptation is the work of the devil – "the implacable enemy" – and he has attempted to turn away from his mistress, to solely devote himself to his wife who has forgiven his transgressions; but Johan cannot deny his overpowering feelings for Marianne, and when he does rekindle their affair, it has tragic consequences.

This is a slight narrative to stretch over a 136-minute film, but despite its methodical pacing and mostly uneventful content,
Silent Light is never dull, and in Reygadas' hands it becomes a fascinating study of faith, redemption and rebirth. His direction is restrained and focused, in marked contrast to the sometimes ostentatious use of tracking shots in his previous films. In Silent Light, the camera often doesn't move at all, it simply sits and observes as life goes on in front of it, and the director appears to take his cue from the steady rhythm of Mennonite life. Some parts of the film have a documentary-style flatness to them, as we watch Johan and his family milking the cows, harvesting the crops or bathing at a local pool, but the narrative seems to unfold in moments out of time. One scene occurs with a thick layer of snow on the ground, while in the next it appears to be harvest time; and Reygadas apparently waited for months for the torrential rainfall in which one of the film's most powerful climactic moments was filmed.

As is clear from these inconsistent shifts in setting and atmosphere,
Silent Light doesn't adhere to the usual tenets of narrative or character. Dialogue is basic and minimal, and Reygadas often lets his camera rest upon the enormously expressive faces of his non-professional cast, allowing them to unveil their emotions in their own way. Reygadas is used to working with untried actors, of course, but the level of performances he has drawn from his contributors here is remarkable. Miriam Toews – better known as an author – is particularly moving as Esther; she spends most of the film suffering silently with the knowledge of her husband's indiscretions, and only occasionally does she make her true feelings known, quietly calling Marianne a whore under her breath towards the end of the film. It's surprising that Reygadas obtained such cooperation from the Mennonite community with this film, given the themes of sex and infidelity, and his handling of this film's sex scene is far less graphic than it has been in his previous work. We focus on Marianne's face during the act – ecstatic, but displaying the conflicted emotions of a woman who knows what she's doing is wrong. "This is the happiest time of my life" she tells Johan, "but also the saddest".

Many viewers will draw comparisons between Reygadas' work here and the work of such greats as Bergman and Tarkovsky, but the most obvious parallel is with Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose 1955 masterpiece
Ordet is explicitly referenced a number of times here. Silent Light's narrative shifts into more daring territory in its final third, and the audience will need to take a leap of faith in order for this development to work, but I was happy to accept these transcendent events because Reygadas has the rare ability to make the miraculous feel real, to suggest the presence of God. Carlos Reygadas is a serious filmmaking talent, and this is both his most accessible and most accomplished work. Silent Light is a film quite unlike anything else you'll in see in cinemas this year, and viewers willing to explore the world Reygadas has laid out for them may be richly rewarded by a film that is often as simple, beautiful and awe-inspiring as the dawning of a new day.