Silent Light (2007): Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas

(Stellet Licht)

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (World Premiere, Competition)–“Silent Light,” the third feature from Mexico’s enfant terrible Carlos Reygadas, showing a director at the top of his artistic form who’s determined not to repeat himself.

A regular Cannes presence, after his 2005 “Battle in Heaven,” which also showed in competition, Reygadas has chosen for each film a different approach, style, tone, and even acting mode.

“Battle in Heaven” divided critics in Cannes and elsewhere and “Silent Light” likely will do the same, not least because of the running time (143 minutes), extremely long takes, and static if also stunning tableaux, all cinematic devices that would seem a peculiar choice for telling an adultery story, albeit one that leads to a deep moral and spiritual crisis.

The establishing, widescreen shot, which conveys a landscape as it changes from nighttime to early dawn to daybreak, is nothing short of mesmerizing, even if the camera takes its time in recording it. It is courageous for a filmmaker to subject his viewers to a 7-minute-long sequence at the very beginning but Reygadas is nothing if not audacious.

Set within the isolated minority of the Mennonite community in Mexico’s Chihuahua region, the story (also written by Reygadas) centers on one family: Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), his loyal and loving wife Esther (Miriam Toews) and their children.

At the end of the family breakfast, wife and kids leave, and Johan is left alone. Without apparent reason, Johan breaks down crying, and we immediately get the notion of a man in crisis, at a complete loss from his deeply-set religious values.

It turns out, as he confesses to his friend Zacarias (Jacob Klassen), that he is involved in an affair with another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz). With very little dialogue, the passionate love between the couple is expressed in outdoor meetings and subtle sex scenes in a cabin.

Body and soul clash, pitting Johan against the law of God and man. The deeply-religious Johan is tormented the way Ingmar Bergman’s characters are, though with the verbal explosions. The source of his torture is more internal.

Johan’s his wife knows about it, but chooses not to confront her husband or “the other” woman–almost up to the end. Not so Johan’s harsh father, a preacher who claims that it’s the works of the devil, the enemy.

However, there’s also the strong possibility that Johan had married the “wrong” woman, and that Marianne, as his friend Zacarias suggest, is the love of his life, his natural soulmate.

Though the tension within the triangle escalates, for the most part, the women keep their emotions under control. Esther is depicted as a devout, faithful wife, who chooses to remain silent-up to the climax–and Marianne shows sympathy to the predicament of her rival, knowing that under different circumstances she could have been in Esther’s position.

Rather impressively, “Silent Light” is not about overt expression of emotions, and certainly not about marital confrontations, which may explain why Reygadas has chosen to work with non-professional actors, here speaking in the German dialect of Plaudietsch. (It takes some time to get used to the lingo).

The Mennonite community depicted in Reygadas’ movie is an intermediate one, to the extent that they have slowly begun to modernize, and have come to accept cars and the advances of contemporary medicine, but still refuse modern communication channels, such as telephone of the Internet (See below).

Middlebrow critics will dismiss “Silent Light” as pretentious and overbearing, which it is not. Unlike Reygadas’ previous films, which have more conventional narratives, motivated characters, and dramatic conflicts, his new work is verbally quiet, and in long stretches even muted, a film that lets the arresting visual imagery cast its spell.

Displaying masterful mise-en-scene, Reygadas’ tableaux are both theatrical and cinematic, combining the qualities of both forms. With the notable exception of Terrence Malick, it’s hard to think of an American director who’s capable of portraying the change of seasons, nature and landscape, the “archaic” farming way of life in modern times, marriage and family, in such poetic way, relying on strikingly austere and controlled style.

We get to see in detail how cows are milked every day at sunrise and nightfall, how the couple keep some of the milk for their family and sell the rest to the community’s cheese factory. The sequence detailing cornfields just before plowing begins is equally long and elaborate with attention to the utmost physical detail.

Some critics have pointed out the visual and stylistic influence of the Danish master Carl Dreyer on Reygadas, but thematically, “Silent Light” also evidences the work of Ingmar Bergman and his religious-morality tales, such as “Through a Glass Darkly.

It’s a tribute to Reygadas’ filmmaking skills that “Silent Light” operates effectively as a portrait of one particular family and as an allegorical tale of a religious community, whose closeness to God and heaven is beyond doubt, defining every single act and feeling of their existence.

I can guarantee that those who see “Silent Light”, most likely in festival and the limited arthouse circuit, will emerge from the screening touched, with powerful images lingering in their memory.

End note

The Mennonites settled in the U.S. circa 1683 and in Canada around 1873. After WWI, a wave of anti-German feelings spread throughout Canada and it became increasingly difficult to teach Germanic languages. Many Mennonites emigrated to North Mexico in 1922.

At present, almost 100,000 Mennonites live there in communities that have their own education system and unique regime of civil liberties. Those who are not content with development and progress emigrate to Bolivia, Belize, and other areas of Mexico, where they establish farming communities without electricity, modern medicine, telephone, mass media etc.