The stunningly beautiful, and immensely moving, Silent Light was, for me, the best film released in 2007, and its availability on DVD enables a wider audience to appreciate its marvels. While a reviewer in one Sunday newspaper informed his readers that it is "the kind of film favoured by those who are basically disdainful of movies", the fact that this same newspaper in 2006 described the Dardennes brothers' terrific L'Enfant as "really just a French version of Cathy Come Home" shows how much reliability can be placed on its judgements.
Silent Light is a mesmerising drama set in the Mennonite community of northern Mexico, with members of the community, non-actors all, playing the main parts. The dialogue is in the archaic Dutch-German language which they speak, and, for the first 90 minutes, is a simple story of a middle-aged family man agonising over his adulterous relationship with another woman in the community. Then there is an unexpected tragedy, followed by what is a virtual remake of the miraculous last scene of Carl Dreyer's 1955 classic Ordet.
The newspaper reviewer mentioned above cannot see the simple fact that Silent Light is a grown-up movie, shot in a grown-up way. The first 5 minutes are an extraordinary time-lapse sequence of the skies from night to sunrise, the soundtrack filled with sounds of the waking natural world; the last 5 minutes are the reverse (sunset to night). If people prefer pointless cgis and rapid-cut editing, so be it; but they are depriving themselves of the experience of what cinema can do.
The drama plays itself out against the background of the wide-open landscapes of the region, the landscape not just of the farmlands but also of the actors' faces, largely expressionless, almost trance-like (melodramatics would ruin a film like this, and there is no non-diagetic music to tell us how we should be reacting). The scenes between the central character and his non-judgemental father, played by a real-life father and son, are particularly moving.
Several scenes, incidental to the basic plot, are specially memorable, such as the magical extended sequence of the children playing in the lake. But it is the final scene, the near-remake of Ordet, which will provoke the most argument and discussion. The "miracle" itself is perhaps less convincing than that of Dreyer's film, not because of how it is shot but because of the context; it could conceivably be interpreted as the farmer's fantasy. (The director has said in an interview that it is more Sleeping Beauty than Ordet.) In the length of time during which Reygadas holds what is virtually a still-life shot he is daring almost to the point of parody; almost, but not quite. It takes a great director to know when to cut.
DVD extras are few, just an interview with the lead actor and a short written note by a critic. But the film itself is worth anyone's money, a brilliant example of what cinema can do.
on 6 January 2009
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. 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.
This film acts like a purgation of the junk-fest sensation and cliché language and plots of our normal cinema.It takes us out of the real world and puts our senses through a sieve through a habit of perfection,distilling an uncreated light. There is a movement in world cinema to utilise non-professional actors and natural light together.The opening (and closing) shots open us up to a slow action shot almost in real time from constellations in a black sky to dawn shots of the rising sun,with all the attendant sounds of crickets,cicadas and cattle lowing.This is a filtered and idealised human nature set in a Mennonite community of Plautdiesh -speaking people who are attuned to the season's cycles, through cattle farming and crop harvesting.The film is composed of beautiful tableaus of widescreen natural vistas,earth and sky meeting on wide horizons, well captured on the many driving sequences,backed up with a soundscape of waving grass and trees,crickets,birds and running water. Johan is sitting with his wife and six children giving silent grace with a ticking clock. Beneath the harmonious surface there is tension between the couple.His wife Esther takes the children out and he breaks down in tears when alone. He has been having a two year affair with Marianne,another Mennonite (single)female.The imagery in this film induces a kind of trance-like contemplation. His infatuated mood expresses itself through him driving round his friend Zackaria to some raunchy music.He goes on to meet Marianne in a long kissing scene which ends in them making love.He is well supported by his friend and father,who thinks it is fate or the devil's work but does not condemn him.Johan thinks every man makes his own fate. We cut to a beautiful scene of the family bathing together. In such scenes the inner peace in the community is brought out.But his wife who he has told of his infidelity is close to tears as she loves him just as he does her,but he feels God intended Marianne for him.We see the family at a cornharvest in some stunning scenes and the machine moving through the fields of corn.Johan,Esther and the kids say silent grace by their pick-up.
Johan feels torn and tells his wife he has to see Marianne,so she tells him to take the children to the dentists too.He engineers it so that a man looks after the kids in his camper van with it's own TV set they can watch.He steals away and makes passionate love with Marianne for the last time.Marianne saying she is at her happiest and saddest since `Peace is stronger than love' and expresses pity for Esther.In a bleak driving scene in the pouring rain Esther asks to get out to vomit.She runs from the car to a tree and breaks down holding it.She has a sense of loss:she used to be a part of everything,fully alive next to Johan.Now heartbroken,she dies of heart attack.She is next laid up in a coffin after being washed by her mother while her family say their last good-byes.The community sing mournful hymns.He talks to Marianne saying he'd do anything to turn back time.Marianne asks to see Esther and tears drop onto Esther's cheek as Marianne kisses her.What follows is a kind of resurrection episode,but is probably metaphorical,a wish fulfilment happy ending.You can either reject or accept this ending but remember this has a religious setting.
on 20 October 2014
In this film the unsaid is the essence of the film, at times powerfully so. In real life relationships (also) , so much is not said. If real life was filmed and observed as closely and sensitively as this film observes its subjects, we might understand and manage our own lives better.
on 26 December 2013
Michael Ondaatje once said that there is a limit to what films can do in getting below the surface of things. This might well be said of Silent Light. On first reflection it seems a mystery how this film, the third by Carlos Reygadas, actually manages to work some magic on the viewer without recourse to establishing conventional feelings for its characters. There is no script here which allows a way of rendering people in any depth whatsoever; dialogue is spare, relaying information in brief clusters of signifying words. "This is the last time... Peace -- is stronger than love... Poor Esther," a character says after lovemaking. The very fact that dialogue relays information stiltedly, instead of communicating in a more natural way, is a stylistic attenuation which doesn't build a convincing case for itself in the course of the film, though eventually a bare minimum of dialogue does enable us to discern the basic dilemma here: the issues a married man faces in keeping a mistress (or not) in a specific sectarian community.
On the other hand, within this sense of economy there is a vital sense of how light affects appearances -- all the varying qualities of light as that which in themselves might generate emotion. But that this happens to the extent which is fulfilling as an experience, as many critics seem to think, is questionable. Here, characters function as IMAGES of people -- rather than AS fully-dimensional people -- just as trees and landscapes function in most films as images of trees and landscapes, that is, without further requirements. There is a kind of purity resulting in all of this, and it's as if a mystery of the generic (not archetype) is revealed: as if each image appears as a pure template -- of itself: this IS the image of trees in a field at dusk, this IS the image of a woman sitting across from a man in a passenger seat of a car, this IS the image of a man alone at a table crying... There is a self-consciousness at play in the sensitivity of the cinematographic light, and thus a heightened sense of physical presence. And the performances by non-professionals are rendered in a way which recalls Bresson, but with a more pronounced distancing. Yet at the same time, and unlike Bresson, the characters just don't register as fully inhabiting a world.
Having said all that, I wonder what connection Mr. Reygadas estimated for his project with respect to Carl Theodor Dreyer's film Ordet, which appears the intentional factor in making his own, largely according to the conjunction of the same main event (a miracle) in both films. Silent Light is actually only a very slight homage to Ordet (shared miracle notwithstanding) for all the supposed similarities many critics have wished to concoct between the films. It seems hard to reasonably qualify Reygadas's re-approach to this "miracle of faith" (not to reveal it here), which one had no trouble accepting from Dreyer, who was a man of deeply religious sensibility -- a sensibility generally and notably absent in Reygadas, a crucial point which leaves the comparison of both men itself wanting.
A rather important omission in general from the critical assessments of the film, is the remembrance that in making Ordet, Dreyer did adapt a play -- through which the matter of revealing the inner states and spiritual conditions of the characters depend on words and the nuances of meaning in language; we are communicative, expressive beings (urban or rural), after all. One of Dreyer's supreme gifts was to compliment the emotional weave of the ongoing verbal exchange between characters with visual compositions and lighting, illuminating what was outside of the spoken. This perfectly complimentary method (one even more refined in his last film, Gertrud, also based on a play) -- between word and image -- exemplifies the interdependence out of which the meaning of his work arises.
In contrast, Reygadas favors the laconic approach of images over words, and has difficulty producing the same depth of total response from the viewer. If he did indeed intend to seek out the inner lives of his characters, albeit in a way apart from language, he hasn't achieved much more than a surface of imagistic mystique, wherein things tend to signify only themselves (as "templates") without deeper resonance. On balance, however, it is notable that there is a distancing due to the subtle stylistic effects one can feel even when watching Dreyer's film; a feeling of being at a remove from the events unfolding, even while one senses being suspended in a spiritual dimension, yet in the end, one which still somehow feels like *real* everyday life. This unusual effect also seems to be present in Silent Light.
Interestingly, when the miracle of the former film appears here, it is not a moving event in and of itself; and yet paradoxically, it effectively becomes such -- due to the exquisitely clear, lucid visual presentation: the transference, of the technical qualities of modulated light, upon subjects, into a "miraculous appearance," is total. The face of the smiling or crying one is the the face illuminated and transfigured by this light -- the entire process of which is ostensibly the real subject of Reygadas's film.
But in Dreyer's cinema, the mutually dependent transference of meaning between words and images makes for a more deeply satisfying experience, far beyond mere technical control of the medium. Next to Ordet, Silent Light will seem ever more slight the more critics try to inflate tenuous connections between the two. One is even tempted to apply Mahler's dictum that "interesting is easy, beautiful is difficult." Apropos of the ravishing images Reygadas conjures, however, one might go further here and say that the beautiful truly appears easy, but nonetheless a deeper, more rewarding interest lies elsewhere.
on 14 September 2011
An odd but praisingly different film about an Amish like family, in Mennonite Mexico. Cornelio Wall, a family man and husband is having an affair. Which woman will he choose, and how will he tell them?
Silent Light is a small, independent film of sorts with a large subtitle box making the film half of the screen. Ii gives a small insightful gaze into a world of Mormon like farming gypsies, who resemble the Amish sects of America (think KINGPIN).
The family is well acted and it is well shot and planned, creating a realistic drama. It is long, slow, quiet and subtle and so can tire, but the ending is likeable. This is like a niche film, being for very few that it may interest and I think those that do will find some value and worth, even if it's main boast is it's unique subject matter.
For me it lacked the passion of a romance, and so succumbs to being a sometimes plain drama. Many of the Super-viewer critics praised it for deeper art and philosophy in filming techniques, and whilst these can be missed, they are worth thinking about.
A masterpiece due to it's uniqueness, but a plain drama for most this film is commendable, different and a great idea.
'Silent Light' is a tragic drama about love, adultery and religion, set amongst a community of Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites in rural Mexico. Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, cast the entire film from the actual Mennonite community.
Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) is married to Esther (Miriam Toews), they are arable farmers who live a life of routine with their children in the presence of God. Johan has a mistress, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), and Esther has been told from the beginning of his affair. It's a simple story, Johan is deeply troubled by his situation, he cannot decide whether to leave Esther or not. He discusses his dilemma with his father, who is opposed to Johan leaving Esther, and his best friend who tells him that Marianne is `the woman nature meant for you'.
'Silent Light' is a deliberately slow film. Everything is pared down, there's little dialogue, minimal narrative, no score, all deliberately spare. I've seen countless films of a similar nature, most of these types of film's fail because there is such a fine line between the film engaging or annoying the viewer by using such a pedestrian pace. Your patience will be rewarded as 'Silent Light' is one of those rare films where it surprisingly works, the director allows the film to come alive at its own pace, mirroring the sedate lives of the Mennonites. Nothing is fussed, nothing is rushed.
The 3 central character's are key to the film's success, they all play out their troubles with such a delicately measured pace, their emotions clinging to the surface and never ever bursting into anything more than tears of anguish. Their silence speaks volumes about who they are and the kind of lives they live. The fact that the cast are non- actor's only adds to the realism and integrity of the film. I was very impressed with Miriam Toews and Maria Pankratz, both giving some genuinely moving performances.
Reygadas has shot a beautiful film, full of scenes with rich colours and light. The glorious opening shot of a sunrise worked beautifully, filling you with a sense of place and slowing your senses down to the rhythms of the film. Although 'Silent Light' wasn't filmed as a documentary, the director's lack of bias is always apparent. It's to the director's credit that although the film is set today, the community is never seen in the context of the rest of the country it inhabits. They simply exist as they are, as they have always done.
Although you can appreciate Johan's struggle to a point, there's no denying what he had done was wrong. I personally found the scene between Johan and Marianne near the end of the film distasteful, it just showed a lack of respect to Esther. But it's one of those films where it is easy to be cynical and judgemental, and not just about Johan's actions. The unusual final act will leave you puzzled, but perfectly in keeping with a beautifully judged film that shows a Mennonite community who has it's own values, and has it's own way of dealing with life.
This is a visual experience rather than an auditory one. The photography and framing of shots is stunningly beautiful. Sometimes the director holds a picture so long that it looks almost like a still of a painting. There is a quiet stillness about the film that is very soothing and the antithesis of the frenetic-style of many Hollywood movies. The story unfolds so slowly it seems as if it's a fly-on-the-wall documentary with little editing. There are long pauses between almost monosyllabic dialogue, but one keeps watching as one wants to know the outcome of the love-triangle that is the central story.
on 10 May 2010
Many films brim with lust for life, want you to share in their joy or aim to raise your spirit. 'Silent Light' turns out to evoke just the opposite. Plot is set amongst a devout religious family, where so much as a raised eyebrow is considered a sin. Under its stern exterior, mum Esther and dad Johan try to come to terms with Johan's recent infidelity. Director Carlos Reygadas treated this subject with the utmost integrity and respect. It's this respect for moral values of characters involved which gripped me most. In spite of all the 'though shalt nots' the characters adhered to, they never resolved to hell and damnation-speeches and they never passed judgement on one another. They accepted each others faults and shortcomings with introvert grace and offered each other comfort with some subdued spoken profound words. 'Silent Light' could be considered a documentary on how a Mennonite community deals with the sorrows life throws at us. Apart from the ending! Here it turns surreal, which, in my view, brings the whole concept tumbling down. Why Carlos Reygadas suddenly brought a dead woman back to life is beyond me. It just didn't fit in. Pity! It left me rather dissappointed. No musical score in SL. The howling of the animals on the farm more than made up for that. Ever heard of deafening silence? Plenty of this, while the family moved about with bowed heads and firmly closed mouths.
on 5 June 2008
Johan belongs to the traditional, deeply religious Mennonite community in north Mexico. A happily married family man, he violates the ethos of the community by falling in love with another woman. All is open and there are no secrets, but this does not diminish the agony of the participants as we move to the tragic conclusion and the ambiguous miracle. Some will be irritated by the long, slow takes, but these are becoming Reygadas signature and the film should be seen for its original style, its insights into a strange community and some exquisite wide screen photography of the flat farmland [sometimes as background to a immobile face]