Review: "Silent Light" (Reygadas, Mexico)

"Silent Light" is Carlos Reygadas' third and most overtly accomplished film—but also his least convincing.
Vadim Rizov
Silent Light is Carlos Reygadas' third and most overtly accomplished film; I also find it his least convincing. A healthy degree of skepticism is automatically called for whenever words like "elegiac" or "magisterial" crop up, and Silent Light is nothing if not determinedly and successfully magisterial; when I talked to Dan Sallitt about it, he noted it felt like being in a cathedral, which is dead-on. This would seem to be form matching content: Silent Light is a tale of devout Mennonites, and two miracles — one minor, one major — occur. Based on Reygadas' other films, Japon and Battle In Heaven, though, Silent Light's nods towards religion seem like a function of its story, rather than any sign of devout respect (or real interest in same) on Reygadas' part. Hence why I'm unconvinced.
I've seen it twice, and it's true that it's a knock-out anyone seriously invested in contemporary film should see; Silent Light is indeed a cinematic cathedral that demands audience silence even more than usual. The much-discussed opening shot — a time-lapse stunner that starts somewhere in the night sky, rendering cloud coronas spectral depth-filled masses and then panning slowly and patiently towards a horizon's sunrise — is a coup every bit as convincing as the obvious ambition behind it. The story — until its dare of an ending — is a mundane one of adultery; Reygadas blows it up into the cosmic. Johan (Cornelio Wall) is a farmer with his wife Esther (Miriam Toews) and children; he's also having an affair with Marianne (Maria Pankratz). That's it. Stylistically, it's much more: John and Marianne's first on-screen kiss — on a hilltop at mid-day — is filled with enough ecstastic flares for two P.T. Anderson films. It's also one of the most boring moments: as with every shot, it's held for infinite length. My viewing companion complained that it felt like Reygadas was gloating over the prettiness of his shots, and it's a fair point: even when working on a story about faith and humble people, Reygadas is not one to recede quietly into the background.
My favorite shock-and-awe moment is a flashy coup: Johan comes to visit his father (Peter Wall) for advice on what to do. It's morning, and the parents milking cows in a dark barn. "Come, let's go outside and talk," says father, and they march through pitch-blackness by (presumably) muscle memory alone, fling open the barn doors — and it's snow-white outside, a sudden contrast shock of the highest widescreen order. It's not just flash: seasons change with alarming, Synecdoche rapidity here, and no one seems to notice. There's two possibilities: either time is passing far more quickly than the narrative indicates, or nature's out of whack. I vote the latter, because Reygadas — lip-service to the Mennonites' faith aside — seems to be operating in a firmly pagan register, which is at the very least consistent with Japon's grimy immersion into shithole nature. Esther describes the shift from a happy marriage to her knowledge of Johan's adultery as the change from "the pure feeling of being part of the world. Now I feel apart from it." Johan's adultery throws the natural world out of wack. But Reygadas seems to disregard that: after Johan and Marianne have sex for the last time, a tiny leaf falls from the ceiling. That could also be nature once more registering how wrong things have gone, but the couple seem quite pleased: it's a tiny little absolution, natural grace in action.
So where's the religion in all this? Great religious films have been made by atheists — The Flowers of St. Francis is a textbook example — but Reygadas doesn't seem to be interested in context in the slightest. Something completely unremarked on in the film is that these Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites are an obscure community living a life apart in the Mexican state of Chihuahua; given that Battle In Heaven ended with the unveiling of a gigantic Mexican flag, this seems seriously bizarre. Like most people, deciphering Japon and Battle In Heaven is utterly beyond me, but it's pretty clear that they're political in a context-specific way (e.g., this is fairly obvious when you end your last film with a gigantic Mexican flag). Maybe after the austere dose of Mexico City filth and corruption of Battle, Reygadas needed an equally austere country purge (there's a long sequence of river bathing); withdrawing almost entirely from Mexico, however, he retreats entirely from the most interesting element of his self-consciously archetypal tale. Who are these people? (Post Silent Light's Cannes unveiling, a scene of Marianne selling the Mennonites' stock-in-trade dairy treats to Mexicans was cut, which seems regrettable.) My favorite scenes are two almost completely irrelevant moments of cross-cultural engagement. In the first, Johan drives in circles in his truck, singing along to a Mexican pop tune and raising an unholy dust storm. In the second, he and his kids watch a clip of Jacques Brel in the strangers' truck; this, at least, makes sense. Just as Johan has just purged his life of adultery and turned it into something retroactively beautiful (for him, not Esther), Brel's sweaty singing transforms pain into humor and art. At these moments, the Mennonites' relationship to the world briefly sputters into life. The inexplicable is always preferable to the obvious in Reygadas' work (look out for a pendulum, ponderously stopped at the beginning and symbolically reactivated at the end, that's just endlessly annoying); with Silent Light, though, he's made, unprecedentedly, a movie that's almost entirely literal even when it's being fantastical, a liberty made possible by the closed-off world Reygadas has found. And if it's a knock-out, I'm still skeptical and puzzled as to what's behind it.

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