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.