Every once in a while, even the most cynical, worldly film critic is liable to wax a little spiritual. It takes a film with a certain mystery, and you could read that word in the religious sense. The new Mexican feature Silent Light has mystery in plenty, but it really lies in the film-making, in that elusive quality (mood, style, intensity of gaze?) that director Carlos Reygadas brings to a simple story. Silent Light is mysterious rather than enigmatic: Reygadas isn't out to broadside us as in his Battle in Heaven, a confrontationally bizarre drama of sex, murder and religious agony in Mexico City. His follow-up couldn't be more different: Silent Light is a quintessential art film of the old school, contemplative and visually beautiful, and with a perfectly transparent narrative, about a man torn between his wife and his mistress.
What makes the premise so surprising is that all three are religious people: the setting is a traditional, pious community of Mennonites in rural northern Mexico. You wouldn't expect a story of adultery in this milieu, let alone one in which the sex is passionate and the source of euphoria as much as grief or guilt. An additional strangeness is the language: the dialogue is in Plautdietsch, a dialect related to medieval Dutch.
This may sound like perversity on Reygadas's part, but this is the language of his non-professional cast, real-life Mennonites largely from Chihuahua state, where the film is set. Farmer Johan (Cornelio Wall) deeply loves his wife Esther (Canadian novelist Miriam Toews) with whom he has seven children, but he's also having an affair with neighbour Marianne (Maria Pankratz). Crazy about Marianne, Johan is puppyishly exuberant as he discusses her with a friend, then leaps in his truck and drives in circles to a Mexican country song. But he's also tormented by domestic and religious responsibility. Johan tells all to his venerable father (the actor's own father, Peter Wall); the old man warns him that the affair is the work of the devil, while Johan believes that it's God's will.
What makes this quiet scene so touching and our view of the Mennonites all the more complex is that the patriarch confesses that he too was once in a similar situation. This subtle, non-judgmental film shows as much empathy for the ways of the strait-laced community as it does for the emotionally dissident central characters.
At moments, the film could almost be seen as an advertisement for the rewards of the Mennonite lifestyle, evoking a beatific awareness of nature. When Johan's family goes swimming in a country pool, Reygadas's eye for detail and simplicity albeit a highly cultivated simplicity emerges to stunning effect. One of the young daughters gazes into the camera with a look of artless solemnity; a purple flower gradually emerges from a hazy background, teased into focus by cameraman Alexis Zabe.
Nothing less than infinity is evoked in the extraordinary five-minute shot that opens the film. The camera slowly loops through a night sky, then creeps towards the horizon; a blood-red dawn breaks, then cornfields emerge in full daylight, to a chorus of birds, frogs and distant, agonised-sounding cattle (signalling the presence of pain in this seemingly benign creation?). Created with ordinary low-tech time-lapse trickery, this vision is both perplexing and awe-inspiring, entirely artificial and yet somehow a distillation of the absolutely real: quite simply, it feels like an act of magic.
Other elements are more elusive. A hotel room tryst ends with a leaf fluttering down from the ceiling, which the lovers identify as red cedar; it seems immeasurably significant, but Reygadas gives us no indication why. Later, Johan's children sit in a truck watching a vintage TV clip of Jacques Brel singing his buffoonish song "Les Bonbons". Why Brel? Why this song? It passeth all understanding yet it seems completely right.
The strangeness reaches its apogee when, just as the story seems to have reached a tragic conclusion, everything is unexpectedly resolved in an out-and-out miracle. It's an ending that many might find hard to swallow, not least because Reygadas appears to have lifted it outright from Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer. But this ending, handled with immense restraint, is completely of a piece with what's gone before.
Silent Light gives us all we need to derive a mystical, even religious experience from it, if we're so inclined. But the real miracle is in the film-making, and in the intermingling of fiction and documentary. Pondering on the bony, sensitive faces of Toews and Pankratz, Cornelio Wall's beefy, boyish pensiveness, or the lines etched on his father's placid features, Reygadas reminds us that whatever sophisticated new technologies of illusion the cinema may devise, its ability to show us the human face in motion and so to illuminate the mysteries of feeling remains one of the art form's basic enduring marvels. You don't have to be pious about either cinema or religion to find Silent Light genuinely miraculous.
Need to know
The pacifist Protestant sect known as Mennonites dates back to a 16th-century Dutchman, Menno Simons.
Simons' persecuted followers fled from Holland to Prussia and Russia, and later to Canada and the US. In the 1920s, anti-German feeling prompted a further migration to Mexico, where today the Mennonites number 100,000. Rejecting technological progress, they live in isolated communities with their own language and system of education. Conservative groups choose to live according to the standards of the 16th century. The community depicted in the movie has begun to modernise.
Further viewing See the darker side of Carlos Reygadas in his 2005 film 'Battle In Heaven' (Tartan DVD)
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