silent light s s s Directed by carlos reygadas

You know you’re in for a hard-core art film when you hear more people raving about its opening shot than the movie itself. The Mexican drama Silent Light, which kicks off a two-week run at Facets Cinematheque on Friday, begins with a spectacular five-minute shot: stars twinkle in the night sky, then the camera spins down to the horizon and time-lapse photography chronicles the majestic sunrise over a field in Chihuahua. The soundtrack is a riot of chirping crickets, progressively augmented by the distant barking and braying of farm animals demanding attention. “The best opening shot of the festival,” reported Bright Lights Film Journal after the movie premiered at Cannes in 2007. I heard similar superlatives after Silent Light played at the Toronto film festival later that year. When Film Comment released its 2008 year-end poll, the movie cracked the top 20, though the indispensable boat rocker Armond White, writing in New York Press, has denounced its “noncommittal mystification” and “grandstanding formalism.”

In fact Silent Light’s technique is so breathtaking that I could get through a whole review without touching on the story, and that would be fine with director Carlos Reygadas. “I hate the idea that film is actually telling a story!” he remarked to Bright Lights, and a few years earlier, interviewed by the online journal Close-up Film, he explained, “Narrative for me is just a vehicle that is probably an evil but a necessary evil. You do need a story but I don’t care about story because I know that the same story told in a mediocre way is mediocre and the same story told properly is a great story. So I really feel much closer to painting or music where narrative is not important.” Of course, narrative is the great fault line of cinema, a medium that combined theater and photography; some people go to movies hoping to get involved in a story, while others are satisfied with pure visual information, whether their particular taste runs to CGI spaceships or five-minute shots of the sun rising.

In practice, Reygadas (Japon, Battle in Heaven) maintains strict control of his narratives: he storyboards his movies down to the last detail, and his amateur actors are recruited more for their physical presence than any acting ability. Silent Light, set in a Mennonite farming community in Mexico, is cast with actual believers from Chihuahua who violated their religion’s doctrine against representing the human form in art to participate in the project. (The two female leads were imported from Canada and Germany.) “I am not particularly interested in Mennonites,” Reygadas told Bright Lights. “I like that they are so uniform, so monolithic. They are all dressed the same. They are archetypes: the mother, grandmother, children.” In shooting the film, Reygadas claims, he didn’t tell the actors the story or anything about their characters; he just gave them their lines and their action in the scene. He wants the essence of the moment, and he doesn’t want anyone getting in the way of it.

As a result, every scene tends to create its own powerful reality. Immediately following the dramatic sunrise, Reygadas spends nearly three minutes examining a middle-aged farmer, Johan (Cornelio Wall), his obedient wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and their six children as they sit around the kitchen table, praying silently, the clock tick-tocking on the wall and the animals still caterwauling outside, before Johan ends the grace with a decisive “Amen.” Later that day, when Johan goes to pick up a crankshaft for his tractor, Reygadas zooms hypnotically into the darkness of the open garage—the first of many gravelike images—as, inside, men shout at one another, the radio blasts, and a grinding power tool nearly drowns them out. In keeping with the Mennonites’ straight-ahead morality, Reygadas favors four-square angles and symmetrical compositions, though whenever he escapes the man-made environments, his wide-screen landscapes are wildly beautiful.

Yet for all the director’s posturing, Silent Light would be as dull as his debut feature, Japon, if its plot weren’t as simple, sturdy, and well constructed as an old barn. Johan has admitted to Esther that he’s in love with another woman from their community, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), and he agonizes over what to do. There isn’t much dialogue in the movie, but what there is cuts deep. “A powerful thing’s come over you,” observes Zacarias, his friend at the garage. “You’ve found your natural woman. Very few know what that means.... That feeling may be founded in something sacred, even if we don’t understand it.” That sort of thinking doesn’t wash with Johan’s preacher father, who warns him, “What’s happening to you is the work of the Enemy.” To Johan’s surprise, the father admits his own passion for another woman years earlier, which he stuffed back down his craw. “Soon enough I realized the excitement existed only in myself,” the father explains. “It was my need to feel.”

As the story gently progresses, the natural delirium of the first five minutes keeps threatening to erupt again. When Johan first goes to rendezvous with Marianne, atop a hill, Reygadas follows his boots in close-up as he climbs, and when the lovers embrace and kiss ardently, Reygadas circles them, multicolored sunspots dancing on the lens. When Johan and Esther are bathing their children in a brook, he glances over at his wife, returns her heartbroken gaze, and guiltily takes her off for a swim; the camera lingers on vague shapes of green and lavender in the background until they slowly focus into leaves and flowers. Later, when Johan pays Marianne a visit in town, Reygadas subjects her to a Warholian close-up against a pillow as Johan brings her to orgasm.

Unfortunately for Reygadas, once he commits to even the sparest story line he’s obliged to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, and this is where Silent Light begins to succumb to its artifice and pretense. (Since the story doesn’t matter, he can hardly complain about my giving away the ending, but you might, so stop reading here if you don’t want to hear it.) In another scene of primal nature, Johan and Esther are driving together when a violent rainstorm breaks out; as if possessed by the storm, Esther begins to feel chest pains, bursts from the car, runs to the edge of the woods, and dies of a coronary—quite literally felled by a broken heart. Johan is devastated, and at the wake that follows there’s a painfully intimate scene in which Esther’s body is groomed for burial by her elderly mother and two other women. In one of the film’s most stunning shots, she lies in a white casket that’s centered in a brilliantly white room and flanked by tall, silver candleholders.

The story reaches its climax when Marianne arrives at the wake to pay her respects; alone with the casket, she kisses her rival on the lips, and the dead woman awakes. Fans of the great Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer will remember a similar ending in his metaphysical drama Ordet (1955), and Reygadas admitted to Bright Lights that the scene was a conscious homage, adding, “In reality, I do not believe in miracles, but I think reality is a miracle.” It’s hard to imagine his Mennonite actors taking such a cagey position on this resurrection; in fact the only thing that saves the scene from utter perversity (after all, it returns Johan to his original predicament) is the spiritual commitment of the performers. Reygadas begins to lose control of the story, and the actors’ sense of it feels more genuine than his. Pure feeling may seem like an unfair criterion for judging a movie, but it’s the one Reygadas lives by.v

Care to comment? See this review at And for more on movies, see our On Film blog.