Cycles fit seamlessly within cycles in Silent Light, commencing with the gradual shift from a starlit night to a dawn punctuated with the awakening sounds of the countryside; an image Carlos Reygadas bookends in reverse to close his third incandescent film. It is as if to say that whatever the toil and torment of an individual life, whatever its sad and ragged cycle, it is subsumed by the larger rotational cycle of the earth, and witnessed by stars whose light has been rendered silent by traveling a vast distance. Even the light of our closest star informs and suffuses the landscape with tender loyalty, suggesting an abiding consciousness to everyday life. Silent Light is by far the best film I’ve seen at this year’s festival, marking a maturity in Reygadas’s vision and a striking purity of the cinematic image.
The cycles are reflected seasonally as well when Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) meets Marianne (Maria Pankratz) in a summer field of black-eyed susans. He has fallen deeply in love with her and believes her to be his “natural woman”, causing him to question his marriage of 20+ years to Esther (award-winning Manitoba novelist Miriam Toews). He is seduced as well by the idea that “a brave man makes destiny with what he’s got.” Snow has blanketed the fields by the time Johan consults his father for advice. He is anguished about being unfaithful to his wife, though he has never deceived her and has communicated his affair with Marianne, and troubled by the effect his affair might have on his six children. His father can’t tell him what to do but reminds him that the devil is implacable. Johan is quick to assert that we cannot rely on gods and devils to claim responsibility for human events; all implacability resides squarely within him and the needs that are his to feel.
Then, of course, there is the cycle of life and death. Reygadas reminds us that love can die from lack of care as easily as a person can die from the loss of love, struck down in the middle of nowhere by the weight of rain. Yet—with exacting difficulty and sacrifice—peace can restore love to life, and spirit—so frequently configured as a small butterfly—can escape through an open window into landscapes lit with telling silence.
Carlos Reygadas has achieved some remarkable accomplishments with Silent Light; not the least being his startling reminder of the polyculturalism of Mexico. Accustomed to the Spanish-speaking campesinos of his earlier films and their abject poverty, he turns his lens on Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites living in an affluent community outside of Chihuahua. He diversifies his compassion.
The movement of his camera has become even more eloquent. The dizzying effect of infatuation is felt as Johann rides his truck in circles around his best friend while singing a randy ranchera. The interaction between landscape and individual is demonstrated skillfully by the shift of camera as a pickup turns a corner on a dusty road. The superimposed reflection of furrowed fields on a window through which we see a dead body is a further reminder of the polyvalence of image; of cinema’s chance at poetry.
Cross-published on Twitch.
09/15/07 UPDATE: James McNally at Toronto Screen Shots offers up his own response to Silent Light and has generously provided an MP3 of Reygadas at his Q&A following the public screening.
12/13/07 UPDATE: In anticipation of the YBCA screenings of Silent Light, SF360's Max Goldberg explores the film's "stacked spirituality" and draws the line against "churlish critics who cry aestheticism."
"Reygadas' measured compositions, cutting, and camera movements are simply too fully integrated to be dismissed out of hand," Goldberg argues. "Reygadas' camera is an agent of compulsive, self-sustaining beauty. His use of the little jewels of light produced by shooting into the sun, for instance, is quite unlike any other I've ever seen." He describes the film's bookend shots as "two unfathomably elapsed dollies which seem to tear right into the fabric of space and time."
Meanwhile, over at the San Francisco Bay Guardian Johnny Ray Huston—tinged with a touch of Christmas—asks if Reygadas's Silent Light is a holy light? He emphasizes the film's opening and closing shots "has the audience seeing stars" and that Reygadas's vision is "stratospheric" with an uncanny "merging of the cinematic and the choreographic."
With some eloquent reservations—"Try as he might, Reygadas can never quite tell a straight story when he fixes his gaze on human subjects"—Huston nonetheless sifts wonder from the project, concluding that the film's "starry-eyed beginning and end prove that Reygadas's scrutiny of the ineffable is far from complacent. If cinema is a corpse, his kiss just might bring it back to life."