[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
Carlos Reygadas’s visceral cinematic sensibility can be felt in every frame of “Silent Light,” briefly showcased at New York’s MoMA last fall and already cropping up on numerous critical year-end lists (mine included). It receives wider U.S. exposure starting this week at Gotham’s Film Forum, thankfully: As with all of the Mexican filmmaker’s works, it demands to be seen on the big screen; only an immersive theatrical setting can do justice to such complex visual and aural textures, painstakingly planned camera movements, and sensitivity to light. This holds particularly true in the case of “Silent Light,” in which Reygadas tames his more bravura instincts, as rapturously beheld in “Japon” and “Battle in Heaven,” resulting in a film no less gorgeous, but more delicate in its beauty.
Set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, “Silent Light” quickly establishes the importance of nature in setting the rhythms and routines of the religious, rural lives at the film’s center. Its lauded opening shot chronicles a starry sky slowly giving way to breaking dawn as the cacophonous chatter of crickets chanting, dogs barking, and roosters crowing fills the soundtrack. From here on, birdsong is nearly constant, and images of land and sky frequently hold the camera’s attention for extended durations.
But amidst this pastoral setting, a disturbance is apparent from the outset. A cut from the heavenly curtain-raiser takes us into the home of Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) and Esther (Miriam Toews), where a circulating camera catches static portraits around the kitchen table and introduces us to the couple and their numerous children, the silence broken only by the unnerving tick-tock of a clock until an “Amen” frees the family to eat breakfast. In the somewhat stilted manner between husband and wife, not simply the result of the director’s characteristic use of nonprofessional actors, festering emotions are legible.
We soon discover the source of turmoil when Johan confesses to his friend, and then father: He’s fallen in love with another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), but he still loves Esther and has been honest with her about the affair. As Zacarias (Jacobo Klassen) puts it to him, Marianne may be the “woman nature meant for you”; this statement receives cinematic confirmation later via a lovely sequence in which a long shot of the surrounding terrain is followed by a close-up of Johan’s feet wading through overgrown grasses before coming to stop before another pair of legs, swathed in a skirt. A cut to a shot of Johan and Marianne’s profiles against the sun, as they gaze long and lovingly at one other before embracing – accompanied by lens flares to mark the magic of the moment – is one of many small, fleeting instances Reygadas enshrines and suspends in time. Other scenes depict the heartbreaking flip side of the coin: When washing up the children in outdoor bathing pools, Johan says to his wife, “You’ve always been so good making the soap, Esther,” and the offhand tenderness of the remark brings tears to her eyes.
Harboring numerous long takes and immobile shots, the film at times resembles a series of still life images, but it seethes with earthiness and passion. Its contemplative pace seems expressive of Johan’s working-through of his feelings. Most shocking about “Silent Light” – which foregoes the provocative sexual couplings of the director’s first two features – is the exceedingly warm manner in which Reygadas sketches each character in the triangle, and his description of their empathic compassion for one another. Esther’s cursing of Marianne – “Damn whore!” – is shortly reversed by a sigh of understanding, “Poor Marianne.” This refrain finds expression throughout the film in a roundtable of sympathy. After making love with Johan, Marianne says, “Poor Esther”; Esther in turn later remarks, “Poor Johan.” Reygadas, attuned to the sensitivities of a people to whom marital betrayal still holds spiritual implications, paints a thoughtful and painful portrait of adultery immune to the histrionics one associates with the subject; he renders drama mostly via internal deliberations rather than external reckonings.
Perhaps the film’s only failing is that it doesn’t quite live up to its own grandiose aspirations. Although clearly intended as a methodical probing of the sacred–characters, in German dialect, speak in poetic passages seemingly designed to elevate the narrative to a higher realm, and the metaphysical conclusion compounds the bid – “Silent Light” doesn’t substantively hold up under such examinations. Viewed as a work of humanism which welcomes meditation, though, the surpassingly gentle and moving film succeeds wholly.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]