Silent Light Dir. Carlos Reygadas

[Palisades Pictures/Tartan; 2009]

From the first frame, Silent Light wraps you in its warm, naturalistic cinematography. The opening 10 minutes, marked by the profound blackness and the sound of crickets, typify the powerful, minimal mise en scène of director Carlos Reygadas. Stars slowly surface through the darkness as the camera pans the sky, settling on the horizon as the sun begins to rise behind two silhouetted trees. The soothing sounds of this lush plain begin to give way, turning the serene landscape into a tormented portrait of the natural world and ultimately of the characters within the film. Unseen cows begin to moo, and birds chirp frantically, lost in the shadowy trees. Slowly, the mooing begins to sound distressed. We wonder, is this what it sounds like when a cow screams? Yet the beauty of the shot lends an aura of inevitability to the scene. This is what the world looks and sounds like in the absence of humanity.

The sound continues through the cut. A large family sits silently at a kitchen table, heads bowed in prayer. We hear the cows retching and the serene sounds of the birds and crickets, joined by the incessant ticking of the clock on the wall. Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), the father, raises his head after many minutes of silent prayer. “Amen,” he says. Thus begins Carlos Reygadas' simplistic, yet incredibly nuanced, meditation on temptation and redemption. It is immediately reminiscent of Tarkovsky or the great family dramas of Bergman.

The story tracks the internal life of Johan, a Mennonite with a wife and seven children. He has fallen in love with another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), and suffers under the belief that God wants him to be with her. But he fears the consequences of leaving his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and children. Surprisingly, in a film this entrenched in the duality of man and God, temptation and redemption, and ambition and reality, the morality issue at play is not that this man of God may betray his holy principles, but that there are potential social repercussions of actions he believes follow God's plan for him.

Reygadas prefers to use non-actors in his projects and worked for months in an attempt to get actual Mennonites from a Mexican community to play the roles in this film. Traditionally, Mennonites believe that a photographic reproduction of a person is blasphemous. But, as with many traditions, there are those who believe that old ways must be occasionally revised. So Reygadas was able to assemble an all-Mennonite cast from around the world and shoot the film on location in the Mexican Mennonite village.

In shots that last for minutes, the two-and-a-half-hour film certainly takes its time. This cinematography is key to making Silent Light work -- it almost functions as a character within the film, helping to define these people, this lifestyle. The glacial tracking shots define almost every scene, revealing more about the tormented characters than the dialogue ever does. Visual themes dominate the screen, making the film a unique and esoteric experience.

The result of this m.o. is a surprising and lyrical film and Reygadas’ best to date. As usual, he evokes engaging, heartfelt performances from his newly minted actors. Especially impressive is Fehr's turn as Johan. There is an endearing subtlety in his ability to oscillate from the divided and simple man of the opening scene to the man who drives his pickup in circles around a friend while belting a Mexican love song out of his window.

Silent Light has more than earned every accolade heaped upon it. While further distinguishing himself from other Mexican directors, Carlos Reygadas has again proved that he is a filmmaker to watch.

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