by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, Palisades Tartan
Slowly but surely, Carlos Reygadas is becoming one of the great directors of our time. It’s unfortunate that his new Silent Light might disappoint some with its sober spiritualism replacing the bolder experiments of his first two (and better) films, Japón and Battle in Heaven, because to miss out on what Reygadas has attempted and succeeded here is to miss out on Reygadas’s development. It would be further sad if others were to mistake Silent Light as merely a tasteful improvement on the less pleasant content of Reygadas’s previous films. No, Silent Light is something unique, if not before unseen, and it should be recognized for what it is, rather than what others wish it to be.
It should be mentioned at the outset that Silent Light is less original than either Japón or Battle in Heaven, and that may constitute a major problem in its evaluation. To witness the critical praise for Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie, it seems as if we don’t mind directors lifting generously from “lower” cinematic material, but we go up in arms whenever Lars von Trier or Gus Van Sant (must be those obnoxious prepositions) “irreverently” pays tribute to a classic of the art house. It will be impossible to talk about Silent Light without also speaking of its obvious reference point, Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, but it’s a waste of time comparing one to the other just to bash Reygadas’s film for failing to live up to Dreyer’s masterpiece. This is Reygadas’s film; it contains his eye, his mysteries, and his particular brand of bizarre, sometimes unexplainable humor. That said, Japón and Battle in Heaven came out of the same “transcendent” tradition of Dreyer, Bresson, with maybe a hint of Antonioni’s architectural and environmental sensibility, but neither were in direct dialogue with a single, particular text. With Silent Light Reygadas updates Ordet, placing the action in a Mennonite community (with nonprofessional actors speaking Plautdietsch) outside Chihuahua, where a farmer named Johan (Cornelio Wall) struggles with morality as he decides whether to leave his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), with whom he’s raising a stable of children, for a waitress, Marianne (Maria Pankratz).
The trademark of Reygadas’s cinema is his ability to fashion galvanizing, miraculous events out of incongruent elements. The gender role-defying May-December romance of Japón and the class warfare of Battle in Heaven, then, serve as human metaphors for Reygadas’s combustive disparities. The central relationships in Silent Light are not nearly as pronounced in their unusualness, however, and the film as a whole is, likewise, much more subtle in its effects than its predecessors. The stunning opening shot that spends several minutes tracking down from a nighttime sky dotted with stars to a resplendent country dawn sets the mood—this is a film by Reygadas the tender. Where violence would once erupt in Reygadas’s films out of the friction between impossible desires, in Silent Light reactions are much more subdued, even buoyant. When Johan confides in auto body shop owner and friend Zacarias (Jacobo Klassen) about his extramarital dilemma he pours his heart out. Then, hearing a song on the radio, he starts muttering its lyrics and tells an employee to turn up the volume. Soon he’s singing along in joy, hopping in his car and driving around in circles.
This is a mystery of behavior almost impossible to understand outside of the irrationality of the human experience. Reygadas clearly believes that experience is inseparable from the fate of the natural world, but it’s also an experience possibly inseparable from the vagaries of an inscrutable god. That’s a main point in Johan’s debate with his pious father (Peter Wall), who believes his affair is out-and-out sinfulness and the work of the devil even as he lets Johan know he’s free to choose his fate. But opposed to this dogmatic teleology are the unpredictable whims of nature, and thus the complex, extra-moral designs of god. They are there in the leaf that falls from the room Johan and Marianne share for a tryst, in the field of snow that suddenly appears during a stretch of mostly fair weather, in the serene ablutions of a pond in which Johan and Esther bathe their children.
Similarly, Silent Light’s sole sex scene is a major departure from the ethnographic displays of intercourse in Japón and Battle. Reygadas keeps the camera focused only on Marianne lying on the bed, and her clenched expression and muted but intense orgasm imparts an unashamed, unrepulsed acceptance of the act. The mortifying prison of fluids and flesh from Reygadas’s previous films makes way for a restrained acknowledgement of pleasure—thus, perhaps, the lovely, melancholic leaf. Soon thereafter Reygadas teases us by suggesting Johan’s transgression has inadvertently allowed for the kidnapping and molestation of three of his children he’s brought along to Marianne’s place of work, until it’s revealed a friend has merely invited them into his van to watch French cabaret singer Jacques Brel on TV. Another shift in tone occurs: Johan joins his children and laughs along with them at the rubber-faced performer’s goofy grimaces. Unlike the other pinpricks of disturbance with which Reygadas punctures the flattened surface of his picture, this scene’s intent remains elusive. It’s very possible he’s just fucking with us, threatening to drop a moralizing weight and instead tickling his audience with a feather. My reaction was simply of relief that Reygadas avoided taking his film in a cheap direction, but even if he means something more than baiting it’s clear Reygadas the provocateur still lies just beneath the tender.
But gentleness pervades. With a few notable exceptions, Reygadas has put aside, at least for now, the audacious, mesmerizing tracking shots he mastered in Battle for Heaven. These shots expressed a simultaneous isolation and heightened awareness of his protagonist’s urban subjectivity, but like many artists who’ve chosen to capture the countryside, in Silent Light he flattens his style, adjusts it to the rhythms of a new landscape and people. Reygadas’s commitment to Bressonian, poker-faced reaction shots is now complemented by a pared-down shot selection, and many of Silent Light’s best scenes deemphasize expression in order to create mood and develop character by other means: lighting, sound design, a single “stain” in the fabric of the image, which can be as simple as a falling tear. Style and purpose culminate to extraordinary effect toward the end, with literal heartbreak befalling Esther during a trek in Johan’s car during a rainstorm. And if the final set piece is reminiscent of Ordet’s, Reygadas finds a particular pitch, a particular charge in his images, that makes the film entirely his own. Among contemporary directors applying stark, “transcendent” filmmaking for their own purposes, Reygadas is the only one interested in the miraculous, in an agency other than realism that guides destinies. Silent Light is the least startlingly innovative of his films, but it’s the most accomplished in exploring the deepest, most absurd boundaries of religious faith and personal transgression, and how the two meet in conception of the sacred uncanny. Once the final shot of Silent Light reverses the opening, traveling through dusk onto a starry night sky, Reygadas has bookended his realm of the unreal with a perfect, primal image of the eternal vault that houses humanity’s secrets. It’s enduring, haunting, and true.