Maria Pankratz as Marianne in Silent Light

If sin is a pursuit for the holidays, and redemption for the cold dawn of the year, then Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light is the rare happy film to have gone into theatrical release at the perfect moment. Now beginning an American run (at New York’s Film Forum) after a long string of festival screenings, it comes into January with guilt and absolution as its very theme–I might almost say its rhythm.

There’s a sense of contraction and expansion, as the events pulse through a small, tradition-bound religious community but a very broad rural landscape. The characters, by upbringing and godly habit, try to contain their feelings; the wide plains and distant mountains, meanwhile, draw their attention (and the camera’s) toward something grander and more enduring than human life. And so, for all the intensity of the film, its style suits the new year like a hangover remedy. With bravura austerity, Reygadas chases the effects of December’s cinematic bender: the stupefying round of Oscar contenders, the would-be amusements for the whole undemanding family.

As for Reygadas’s setting–the present-day Mennonite community of Chihuahua–it would make Silent Light a rare film no matter when it was released. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first Mexican production to be shot mostly in a German dialect with a cast of blond, blue-eyed nonprofessionals.

They’re taciturn people, as Reygadas presents them. Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and their half-dozen children are first seen in silent prayer at their farmhouse breakfast table, surrounded by morning light and the loud ticking of a wall clock. A young boy’s yawn is the only human sound. Shown in steady close-ups and tightly composed groups of two or three, the characters might almost be figures in a portrait gallery, until Johan opens his eyes and says “Amen.” Then you get the first of many well-considered shocks, as these photographic subjects come to life: pouring milk into their breakfast cereal, helping the baby eat, discussing their plans for the day ahead. Everything seems normal until the end of the scene, when Johan is left alone in the kitchen, and you get the second shock. Climbing up on a stool, he stops the wall clock, deliberately interrupting the flow of time that had only just begun. Then he sits again at the table and begins to weep.

After many tears shed in this lingering shot, and many miles of widescreen landscape observed in the next scene, you learn the reason for Johan’s sorrow, and for the eloquently caring hand that Esther had laid on his shoulder. He has met Marianne (Maria Pankratz): his “natural woman,” as a friend puts it, with whom he shares deep understanding and passion. Johan now believes his marriage to Esther is “a mistake”; but he can neither correct it (since it’s been sanctified by God and all those children) nor give up Marianne.

At this early stage, Johan’s intractable dilemma (and Esther’s and Marianne’s) is just something you hear about in the dialogue. You still need to see it; and so Reygadas, in his own good time, shows Johan and Marianne meeting on a flower-strewn hilltop (a strikingly open spot for a clandestine rendezvous), where they wordlessly enter into a deep, prolonged kiss.

Imagine a man and woman in their 40s–an age at which his smooth-fleshed Saxon features have become jowly, and her tautly sculpted face seems like an outcropping of her bony frame. Imagine such people embracing before the camera, with neither the handsomeness nor the suavity of movie actors. A third shock: you see how Fehr and Pankratz threw themselves into their unaccustomed playacting, earnestly joining their lips and tongues for lack of knowing how to screen-kiss.

By the end of Silent Light, there will be more than just a kiss; and though Reygadas in this film does not show anything half so naked as the non-simulated, non-actorly sex of his previous feature, Battle in Heaven, he still brings you into the realm of peep-show cinema. You get the forbidden thrill of watching religious people expose themselves; and that’s not even half the advantage he takes of his subjects.

The really big, crazy opportunity that Reygadas seizes from the Mennonites is the chance to film his own, Mexican version of a spiritual drama by the Danish master Carl Dreyer. This improbable act of mimicry (or is it emulation?) makes itself felt as early as the kitchen-table scene, with its spare, white-walled interior and floods of even light. At the climax–moviegoers who know their film history might choose to stop reading here–the relationship of Silent Light to Dreyer becomes inescapable, as Reygadas remakes the great conclusion of Ordet.

The imitation is explicit, outrageous; and yet, in the midst of stunned disbelief, I felt deeply moved by it. To explain why, I might talk about the balance between bad faith and good, between willful showmanship and rapt devotion; but speculations like these would imply that I know the filmmaker’s mind, and I don’t. All I can do–and it’s good to be reminded of this–is point to the outward signs in Silent Light that suggest an inner conviction.

Pacing is one of them. When Reygadas’s camera dollies through a doorway much more slowly than the characters would walk, you may either feel impatient or else watch very closely, sensing that every detail must somehow be important. Similarly, when Reygadas’s camera leaves the performers behind and wanders off on its own, you can either view the excursion as a stylistic flourish or else experience it as a profound act of sympathy with the characters, who are striving to look beyond themselves.

No music underscores the scenes (unless someone happens to be playing a radio); but the movie fills the air with ambient sounds, from thunderously chirping crickets to rumbling pickup trucks, as if to confirm that a material presence lies behind this show of colored lights. Sound becomes palpable, and so, too, does the weather. When a crucial scene is played in a downpour (rather than a screen simulation of rain), the characters’ emotional turmoil becomes inseparable from the suffering of the drenched performers.

The most memorable of these signs–it seems to be obligatory for every review to mention it–is the masterful opening time-lapse shot by cinematographer Alexis Zabé, which begins in utter darkness and gradually reveals the breaking of dawn over the landscape. Lengthy, gorgeous and utterly devoid of narrative content, this initial gesture might as well be a notice to the audience, declaring that the movie is going to give a lot but will demand almost as much. I am as impressed as any fan of Silent Light with this virtuoso beginning; but the gesture that fully won me over comes at the climax, when Reygadas faithfully copies the moment of redemption in Ordet and at the same time alters it. If you haven’t seen the original, the action will still stop your breath. But if you do know Ordet, you’ll see how Reygadas daringly puts forward a much different agent of divine grace, and so progresses from aping Dreyer to conversing with him.

Silent Light is only the third feature in Reygadas’s young but eventful career. It follows the drunk-and-disorderly abjection of Japón (2002), which took place in a rural shantytown set in a crack in the earth, and the mad, blood-soaked criminality of Battle in Heaven (2005), which reeled through a labyrinth of subway stations and grim apartments in Mexico City. Those films, too, had plenty of guilt, along with a surplus of extravagant talent; but redemption was in short supply, and tenderness scarcely to be found. Yet with a project more improbable than any he’s tried before, Reygadas has found a way to be both astonishing and humane. Silent Light may be a “what the hell?” experience, but it’s one that paradoxically makes you want to see, feel and think more clearly.

Because they hang on like a bad cold into the new year, December’s prestige releases deserve at least one blow of the critical nose. Happy to oblige–but first, let me praise a few of the pictures that are truly worthy of attention.

Leading the group, and by a considerable distance, is Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir: a documentary account of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila camps, which takes the startling form of an animation. By turns caricatural and phantasmagorical, the drawings lend pizazz to eyewitness accounts given by nine Jewish Israelis (Folman among them); more tellingly, these cartoons convey the film’s troubling theme of the mutability of memory. Folman structures the story as a quest, in which he tries to overcome his amnesia about what, exactly, he did in the war. By the time he reconstructs the answer, the problem has expanded to one of national amnesia, which Folman corrects with devastating force.

Waltz With Bashir is brilliant, singular and not to be missed. Cadillac Records and Gran Torino, by contrast, are optional pleasures–though why anyone would pass them up, I don’t know.

Written and directed by Darnell Martin, Cadillac Records brings you half a dozen of the biggest personalities to swagger onto the screen this year: Muddy Waters (as uncannily reincarnated by Jeffrey Wright), Howlin’ Wolf (the hugely sardonic Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (played by Mos Def with boundless wit and charm), Little Walter (Columbus Short, who must have spent weeks picking the scenery out of his teeth), Willie Dixon (in a warm and knowing performance by Cedric the Entertainer) and Etta James (did you doubt that Beyoncé Knowles was a star?). It’s wrong that this cavalcade of Chicago blues and early rock wasn’t shot in Chicago; but when social history makes you want to shout, everything else is all right.

There’s also plenty of social history in Gran Torino–on subjects such as the decline of Detroit and the changing character of immigration. But as both director and star, Clint Eastwood is too canny to dwell on them. He’s making a movie–does anyone else in Hollywood remember how it’s done?–and wants you to focus on the isolated, embittered, potentially dangerous character he’s playing, as this tough old autoworker becomes involved with some unexpected young friends. By the end, all the thematic tensions about vigilantism that Eastwood has embodied for the past forty years are finally resolved, in a picture that would feel like a grand summing up if its author were not such a modest craftsman.

And now, a look at some of the season’s immodest films.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Giving new meaning to the insult “backward,” Forrest Gump takes over Brad Pitt’s body for eighty reversed but uneventful years–a life span that the audience seems to experience in real time.

Slumdog Millionaire: Who wants to be Satyajit Ray? The subject may be poverty and social change, but the name of the game is fun, and its clues are child beggars, Bollywood, call centers and the Taj Mahal–everything the average Westerner might know about India, short of Ben Kingsley in a loincloth.

The Reader: So that moviegoers may fret over the feelings of a young man and the really hot Auschwitz guard he used to date, five unrepentant Nazis receive light sentences for their crimes, in this exquisitely sensitive drama about doing the right thing.

Revolutionary Road: Fresh from her career in the SS, Kate Winslet moves to the 1950s suburbs and acts, and acts, and acts, and acts, until you’re stunned by the play of emotions on her face but can’t remember a word she’s said.

Doubt: It was a dark and stormy night in American Catholicism, when Sister Meryl Streep and Father Philip Seymour Hoffman settled in for 104 minutes of shouting at each other. Co-starring Amy Adams as the sweetest young nun in the parish–a role I’d be happy to see her play, if John Waters were the director. Maybe in the new year.