Director Carlos Reygadas (Japon, Battle in Heaven) bookends his third feature Silent Light with long (and I suspect sped up at least a little) symmetrical shots of the sunrise/sunset over rural Mexican farmland. This quiet, restrained beginning raises expectations that we may be in for a master work of cinema.
Silent Light focuses on happenings within a family in an isolated Mennonite community in rural Mexico. (The bizarre accents had me a little confused at first seemingly caught between the soft Dutch and clinical German when I knew the director was Mexican. It turns out that this Mennonite group does speak a bastardised fusion of Dutch and Low German!) The story slowly unfolds to reveal that the family’s patriarch, Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), has been involved in a two year affair with another member of their community, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), and even more surreally, that Johan’s long-suffering wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), has know about it all along because Johan told her at the beginning. In fact, honest as he is, he lets Esther know every time he and Marianne are going to have a rendezvous and occasionally effuses self loathing at his failed attempts to be a stronger man. Johan believes that in Marianne he has found his ‘soul-mate’ and that they share a level of connection that he and Esther – even at the height of their romance – never have.
At the point where we enter the film the situation has reached a head and Johan, feeling the pressure to make a decision either way, visits a number of significant people in his life for advice. First with his friend Zacarias (Jacobo Klassen) who advises him to go with his heart as not everyone gets the opportunity to connect with that one special person. Conversely Johan’s father – the Mennonite community’s minister – advises him to stick with his family who need him (they have at least four children) but is surprisingly understanding. His father relates his own similar experience early in his marriage when he felt inexplicably and strongly attracted to another woman and how he makes the decision to cut off the relationship before it gets out of hand even though it is very painful for him, saying that it is painful but that the pain eventually subsides. In the end he won’t tell Johan what to do and he and Marianne are left to make the hard decision – in one or other direction – themselves, though the two never seem to talk much in their onscreen encounters. Towards the end of the film things turn somewhat metaphorical and the director finishes the movie in an open ended fashion giving grace notes to each of the three key characters in turn.
Beautifully shot, and thoughtfully paced, Reygadas’ treatment lends a meditative gravitas to Silent Light which the subject matter alone would not bring by itself. Unfortunately, to my mind (and in this I greatly diverge in opinion from NZ Film Festival’s Andrew Langridge who wrote the FF programme summary for this film) Reygadas’ direction is somewhat heavy handed: overusing certain camera techniques, lingering artistic shots, and making an unnecessary show of a number of scenes that would have benefited from more restraint. I wasn’t 20mins into the screening before I was tired of his repeated use of slow zoom shots to bring the audience from the outside in to the action, or some private conversation. This is somewhat reminiscent to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s OTT camera trickery in 2006s Climates but at half the speed. I also think that Silent Light overshot its effective running time by about half an hour and that its meditative appeal wouldn’t have suffered from more brutal editing. Compared with the subtler hand and more appropriate decisions of Yamashita Nobuhiro in this year’s luminary A Gentle Breeze in the Village, Reygadas’ efforts come away looking somewhat clumsy and contrived.
This is not to say that Silent Light is a bad film; it is a very good film, provoking thought about a subject that I think is important to discuss; namely, what is love? We are consistently fed the line that passion/emotion = romance = love, or at least that these are the keynotes of love. Reygadas manages to expose the complexity of feeling, commitment, interconnected relationships and self-fulfilment vs self-denial that love encapsulates. If you think you can cope with the 2hrs 22mins runtime then you’ll come away with much food for thought and visually enriched by the work of a director who is slowly moving towards his potential as a filmmaker.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Duration: 142 mins
Director: Carlos Reygadas
With: Cornelio Wall Fehr, Miriam Toews, Maria Pankratz, Peter Wall, Elizabeth Fehr, and Jacobo Klassen.
Country: Mexico/France/Netherlands (2007)