I was once in an art history tutorial when a fellow piped up and asked whether the three legged stool the Madonna was sitting on was symbolic of the Holy Trinity. I recall the tutor looking politely doubtful while the rest of the class fell about cackling unkindly at the poor try-hard. His crime: striving and over-reaching to see meaning in a purely incidental relationship. Well, maybe it was incidental - maybe he was right, who knows? - but I laughed all the same.
Nevertheless, his disposition would stand that chap in good stead should he ever chance upon Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light. This film admits of - requires, even - an over-reaching to see meaning, and as such will not be everyone's cup of tea. I'm still not sure whether it was mine.
To be sure, there is a certain sort of buff to whom Silent Light will appeal greatly - he who is rejoices in straining to unpick a film-maker's message will be in heaven: such industry is obligatory since Carlos Reygadas has opted to communicate his message in the most eliptical way. Reygadas is, you see, an auteur (a fact which will fill you with glee or despair, depending on the significance you see imbued in things like three legged stools).
In many places, the Meaning of Silent Light is to be found not in dialogue (there isn't much) nor its delivery (the actors - real Mennonites - aren't professionally trained, and frequently may as well be reading out technical manuals for all their performances convey) nor, really, in what happens in the film (in fairness, after a *very* slow build up, things do happen), but rather how it is *seen* to happen.
There is meaning, that is, in frame composition. It is significant that the camera itself is often visibly part of the film - not just in camera position and width of angle (though they are frequently telling) but in the existence of lens flare, in that the camera itself pushes long grass off screen when tracking a character at ankle level, that its lens is spattered by water cascading off a tree and when a wide-angled tracking shot noticeably fish-eyes the parallel horizontals of a building. In a more careless film maker, you'd assume these were continuity errors, or at the most purely incidental relationships. Not, I suspect, here. There is a long slow shot (indeed, there are hundreds of long slow shots, but one in particular) forward out the windscreen of Johan's pickup - itself doubling as a visible lens - as he drives down a dirt road. When he turns off the road, the truck pivots around the camera as if it is on a gyroscope, the camera continuing to point on its original bearing, only now pointing at the side of Johan's face. The effect is that the viewer cannot help but be aware that there is a movie camera sitting on the passenger seat in Johan's truck. Cinematography 101 would teach that first principle of filmmaking is to create quite the opposite impression.
Not here: The lens constantly intrudes, and when it doesn't we see through windows, through windshields, through ajar doors into private affairs. We are always aware we are intruding.
What to be drawn from this? We are conscious, always, of the aperture - that we are observers, voyeurs in an intensely private world (an extramarital love affair) inside an intensely private world (a devoutly religious family) inside an intensely private world (a Mennonite comunity) and, like the camera, we shouldn't be there.
Profound, I suppose, but I'm not sure what finally to draw from it. I feel much the same way about the film as a whole.
There's something clever about this, but it's too clever: self-consciously self-conscious, and tiring - divining which production artefacts bear messages and which do not is hard, and exhausting. In many places I gave up.
I didn't understand, for example, the significance of a momentarily lost child, discovered safe and sound and watching an old recording of a Jacques Brel TV special, in French, in a van. Why? And why a long dead Belgian folk-singer? Could a director who takes such care to speak via lens flares and camera angles have been so careless to throw in such a scene apropos nothing? And what to make of the end, wherein a studiously realist film suddenly goes surreal, apparently capable only of figurative interpretation?
Some high brow critics loved this film - the one through whose recommendation I came to be watching it, Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times, was so taken by its luminescence to declare it "the impossible made possible by grace and faith" - but for me it was too empty for that. Much has been read into the celebrated opening and closing shots but, again, I couldn't quite see the cleverness (and as you'll notice, I'm prepared to be as creative/fanciful as the next chap in my interpretation), and so let dusk fall not that much wiser than I'd been when daylight broke a couple of hours previously.