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Review: "Silent Light" (Reygadas, Mexico)

"Silent Light" is Carlos Reygadas' third and most overtly accomplished film—but also his least convincing.
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.
Very nice, Vadim. Amid all the “it’s so pretty” commentary circling around this film, your write-up is one of the first I’ve stumbled on that goes some way toward challenging and contextualizing it. I saw Silent Light once, nearly a year-and-a-half ago, and am eager to revisit it, if only because I trust Reygadas, on the strength of Japon and Battle in Heaven. I was really disappointed by Silent Light but don’t doubt it’s worth the effort of serious critical attention.
Hey, no Dreyer reference, props! I find this movie beautiful to look at but fairly fraudulent in terms of actual content.
Mac
Silent Light is a beautiful film made by a director who is well on his way to carving out a unique body of work. The criticisms of this movie seem petty to me, but what else are you going to focus on when you have nothing to do but focus on what is wrong with everything that passes before you. I know it’s pointless to point out to critics that that which they critique is beyond their own meager talents, but the least some of you could do is match the effort of a film like Silent Light with your writing. Vadim’s review is like someone trying to bring down a skyscraper with a fistful of toothpicks.
Mac, old-school cab hailer (presumably): “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.” I don’t know how much clearer than this I can be. If you want absolute genuflection, there are plenty of places to turn.
Mac
Genuflection is not necessary nor wanted. What is sorely needed though are more people who aren’t as interested in unraveling sweaters one thread at a time. Maybe you should try being less of a critic and more of a teacher. Can you tell me why this movie works the way it does? That’s what I want. But that’s a little beyond your ken, isn’t it? That would make you a scholar and not a reviewer, so I guess I am sniffing around the wrong pile, aren’t I?
I liked Silent Light a lot more before I watched the half-hour “making of” documentary and cast interviews that came with the DVD, after which it seemed so much more insincere, dead, and hollow; and reminded me most of the (fitting, for that film) mechanical beauty and tedium of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread. I still admire the aesthetics and technique, but I often admire those things in TV commercials, too. Good review.
In defense of Vadim and criticism in general, the second we stop analyzing films and blindly praise them is the day we should all stop writing. And this review doesn’t seem overly critical, just skeptical of the mysteries the film has to offer, and willing to reassess them as time passes. Which is what criticism should do.
Mac
Why is it that critics are so averse to receiving criticism? Better get used to it. If criticism is an art form in itself, like so many critics believe, then why should any critic be immune to having his critique critiqued? Critics are not above criticism. I think that hasn’t quite sunken in yet. Everyone is on the same level. The artist who creates the work that the critic interprets and those who read that interpretation and interpret what the critic is trying to say. Maybe the discourse between those who read the interpretation and the critic is more coarse than between the artists and the critic, but things will smooth out the longer this kind of discourse goes on. The distance between the critic and the audience is as short as it’s ever been. I don’t know who any of you are and none of you now who I am. As far as I’m concerned, credibilty is a non-issue. You have to earn your credibility within this plane of information and communication; you can’t import your credentials from the outside world. That’s what is so frightening about the internet. The old rules don’t apply. It’s total chaos. Maybe that’s why The Dark Knight hit such a nerve. Because the physical world is separating from the world of information at a rapid pace. And the world of information is not necessarily using the physical world as its referent, or it is, but only taking what it can use, like speed and agression. Who knows. This is not something that someone like me can figure out. All I know is that this isn’t a letter to the editor. If it was it wouldn’t be published.
Mac, I agree critics should be open to people criticizing their work, especially with the openness of the Internet. However, in this particular instance, when you say Vadim’s “criticisms seem petty to me”, you’re implying the critic is jealous of the filmmaker, as if the critic is someone who is tearing the film down out of their own insecurity. This website is one of the best forums I’ve run across and these writers will address differing opinions on a moments notice with class and integrity. However, I think the tone of your post was overly negative in a way that resides completely outside the world of film criticism, as if Vadim had a grudge against this film. Personally, I found the review quite eager to stress the contradictions involved with this particular perception, and herald the film for achieving such an interesting discourse with the viewer. It’s not about “beautiful” or "good"or “bad”, but looking beyond the surface for ideas to discuss.
Despite the fact that Mac’s an incredibly rude guy (also: it’s your choice to be anonymous, not use your real name and use that as an excuse to be rude to strangers, not an automatic function of the internet; it is possible to have an argument without beginning from assumptions of bad faith about the person you’re disagreeing with), I did think for a while about his question of how it works, which is a good one. One thing that strikes me is that Reygadas seems to have very little use (in all his films) for medium shots, which ties in with what Mike D’Angelo calls his “formally grandiose” predilections. It’s either huge shots or extreme close-ups, for the most part; it’s amazing that he makes the inside of the family’s not-so-big house seem every bit as massive and huge as, well, the entire universe that precedes it. Reygadas’ ability to blow everything up (which he does in his other films) seems kind of distinct from the many other festival filmmakers with whom he shares slow-ass pacing and almost excessively deliberate mise-en-scene, because he seems to regard everything he puts on-screen as massive. (Japon turns this into a joke, which I appreciate.)
Vadim, I’m just about to tackle this film for Reverse Shot’s end-of-year list, and I just want to congratulate you and curse you endlessly for taking the words right out of my mouth. This is one of the most considered and balanced takes I’ve yet seen on a film that is clearly intended to make cinephiles erupt in orgasm. Reygadas is one of the most talented aesthetic opportunists around, which of course makes it hard to find the dividing line between the talent and the opportunism – and you’ve done an exceptional job.

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