Carlos Reygadas: SILENT LIGHT
review by Jonathan Romney
I felt deeply antipathetic to Reygada’s first film JAPON but was bowled over by his follow-up BATTLE IN HEAVEN, a success de scandale when it played in Cannes two years ago. In SILENT LIGHT he abandons his first two films’ sometimes calculated outrage quotient and goes for something deeper and more delicate. After the hothouse Catholic iconography of BATTLE IN HEAVEN he’ss still on a religious tack: his third feature is set within an austere Mennonite community in Chihuahua, northern Mexico. The community sepaks Plautdietsch, a German dialect related to medieval Dutch, and this, along with a smattering of Spanish, is the language of the film.
The protagonist is Mennonite farmer Johan (Cornelio Wall), a husband and father who, contrary to the laws of his community, falls for another woman. He views this new attachment not with shame but with joy and eagerness: he truly believes that his passion for ice-cream seller Mariane (Maria Pankratz) is part of the fate determined for him by God. Johan vows to give her up... (SPOILERS EDITED)
In its severe, contemplative way, SILENT LIGHT challenges you to take seriously certain highly unfashionable propositions about grace and divine intervention: in that sense it’s not dissimilar to BREAKING THE WAVES, by that other Dreyer acolyte Lars von Trier, but in a much more serious register. ...
The film opens with what is arguably the single most remarkable shot in Cannes this year. ...
Much of SILENT LIGHT consists of scenes of Mennonite life that lend it an ethnographic documentary feel: Johan’s family praying at breakfast, his solemn children bathing in a pool, tender rituals such as the assaging of feet or the combing of... (his wife) Esther’s hair. ...
SILENT LIGHT is one of the more mature and thoughtful recent films about adultery... The film also makes clear the intensity of the sexual passion involved: here is a rare work that treats middle-aged sex between ordinary-looking people seriously, and photographs it beautifully. The camera plays subtly on the facial likeness between Esther and Marianne and on the facial likeness between Johan and his father, who are father and son in real life and both members, like many of the cast, of Chihuahua’s Mennonite community.
You can’t help wondering what it means for a Mennonite man to play a character caught in the throes of an extra-marital romance and what understanding Reygadas had with the community and with individual participants. But you no longer get the impression – deeply troubling in both JAPON and BATTLE IN HEAVEN – that the director is exploiting his non-professional actors, In this film there’s a contemplative sensitivity in the way he studies their faces and bodies that makes for a sensuous and compassionate experience. The ending could be as much a bone of contention as the notorious final shot (pious or ironic?) of BREAKING THE WAVES, but even if you can’t buy into the religious dimension of SILENT LIGHT, it’s hard to remain unmoved – not least by the exalting spectacle of a promising director making the transition to true mastery.
Sight & Sound, July 2007
And here's a link to Peter Chattaway's blog, where he posts an article about Canadian Mennonite novelist Miriam Toews and her casting as Esther in the film!