Dazzle Gradually: Mexican Filmmaker Carlos Reygadas
by Roy AnkerAnker pays attention to light. That's appropriate here, of course, given both the film’s aesthetic and its title, but light is an ongoing theme in Ankers' film writing. In the introduction to "Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies” (2004) the author considers human veneration of light, and the ways that films reflect both light and Light.
Books & Culture | July 6 2009
Young Mexican writer-director Carlos Reygadas remains, even after three films, a rather large puzzle—and a hotly controversial one at that. He says he left his lawyer-diplomat career after viewing films by Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian mystic filmmaker (Andrei Rublev), and he also claims the hefty influence of France's arch-Catholic Robert Bresson (The Diary of a Country Priest, The Pickpocket), the fellow who, more than anyone else, put on the cinematic map "transcendental style in film," as Paul Schrader titled it for his classic book. That bodes well for both seriousness and style, unless taken too far, and for that, an over-the-top artsiness, Reygadas has gotten huge flack. In one sequence he may well deliver long splendorous takes of a numinous nature, enough to make the jaded gasp and kneel right there in the theater. And in the next, well, porn—meaning fully graphic sexual display, stark and transgressive, especially in its lack of eroticism. . . .
Reygadas displays the whole of his tale within an effulgent, circumambient radiance whose quiet majesty seems to bestow meaningfulness of some kind on all that happens. Call it, if you wish, the loving eye of God, which goes everywhere, attending and transfiguring, even into dankest corners of woe and evil. What stood out, remarkably, in Reygadas' first film, Japón, was his camera work, even though that was done in 16 millimeter adapted to a very grainy widescreen. Throughout a somewhat cryptic, disjointed narrative, the camera glides and watches, always relishing what it sees. In Silent Light, the camera is pretty much stationary, but the marvel of light, landscape, and people is all the more entrancing for that. The long rhapsodic opening shot of the sun rising over the farms of Chihuahua sounds sure-to-be draggy, clichéd, and artsy, but in fact, it's quite the opposite: it dazzles, as more than a few jaded reviewers have admitted. The same is true for the long scene in which Johan and family bathe and swim about in an irrigation sluice. And throughout, a purity and whiteness of light in which there is hardly shadow at all adorns people, young and aged alike—especially near the end, as they all sit in funeral vigil.
For Reygadas, that arresting, transfiguring light falls on everything and everyone, and especially on the ordinary and the unlovely. Very ordinary-looking people inhabit his films. The married couple in Battle in Heaven—one portly, the other morbidly obese—parade nude and make love, minutely inspected by Reygadas' go-everywhere camera, and none of it, even in their love-making, panders. So also with the ancient Ascen in Japón, eighty if she's a day, her face a map of wrinkles upon creases; she too appears naked when giving herself to a younger man (that film is an amped-up retelling of Solzhenitsyn's luminous short story "Matryona's Home"). Nor does the mistress Marianne in Silent Light come close to any notion of Hollywood prettiness, and when we do meet her, the unprettiness, at least in conventional terms, comes as a jolt, so inured are we to axioms of attractiveness, and, lo, how little we understand of people and souls.
To see the world this way, as if through a pair of Vermeer-tinged eyeglasses, is, frankly, startling. Perhaps this is Reygadas' foremost gift: his "eye," his luminous apprehension of the physical world. Whether it be the stolid, intractable fleshliness of humanity in Battle in Heaven, or here, among the Mennonites in Mexico, the palpable radiance of the sun on the high plains of Chihuahua and of the plain people in the plain, white interiors of their simple farmhouses, Reygadas imbues the full amplitude of being with just enough "whatever" to inspire awe—what he calls "contemplation." And he does this without recourse to the cheesy devices that Hollywood uses to signal the portentous.
Reygadas seems fully aware of what he's after, confessing in an interview, "In reality, I do not believe in miracles, but I think reality is a miracle." So when the "wow" of the conclusion does come round, it seems a logical extension of the irreducible glory already contained in every sort of thing. Near the end, Marianne tells Johan that "peace is stronger than love," at least of the romantic sort, and it is the fullness of peace, wrought by agapic love, that in the end accomplishes all. Indeed, that old Mennonite banner of peace seems to win the day, celebrating the quiet, grateful heart over the psycho-blitzes of passion and romance. In all of this, loss is perhaps the severest teacher. Reygadas cops his ending from a famous film by a famous Danish filmmaker, though he says his point is different. And so it is.
With Silent Light Reygadas has come to look like the real thing, a filmmaker of enormous visual talent who has something to say, though he tends to scorn the necessity of stories. One reason he left Europe, he says, was that he found it insensible spiritually, and he adds that, while for a long time he wanted to be an atheist because it was cool, he finally couldn't pull it off. He's beginning to sound very much like an orthodox Catholic, talking about love, sacrifice, redemption, and God's own cross-dying. And there's also that profound wonder and reverence for all that is. Indeed, he seems all of a piece, displaying in breathtaking fullness the gift of what Esther at one point calls "the pure feeling of being alive" and the coming of Light itself—all of that, to borrow from Emily Dickinson, a knowledge "Too bright for our infirm delight." Indeed, with "Truth's superb surprise," Reygadas does "dazzle gradually," but dazzle he does, opening eyes and, just maybe, a soul or two.
“One of the more surprising turns in the contemporary cinema of North America and Europe has been the regularity and maturity with which it has cast cinematic light on those ‘animating mysteries of the world,’ as Clarissa Vaughn in Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours (1998) puts it. Like other characters in that novel, Clarissa ponders the origin and significance of the majesty she feels all around her: the possibility that ordinary physical light in fact emanates from Light, that ours is a radiant world made so by a Love that transfigures the material into resplendent glory.”Anker carries that focus through the rest of "Catching Light," as seen in his section headings:
Part One: Darkness Visible | The Godfather Saga (1972/74/90), Chinatown (1974), The Deer Hunter (1978)
Part Two: Light Shines In The Darkness | Tender Mercies (1983), Places In The Heart (1984), The Mission (1986), Babette’s Feast (1987)
Part Three: Fables Of Light | The Star Wars Saga (1977/80/83/etc.), Superman (1978), Close Encounters (1977), E.T. (1982), A.I. (2001)
Part Four: Found | Grand Canyon (1991), American Beauty (1999), Three Colors: Blue (1993)
It’s great to see Anker writing about current film. Though his book was published five years ago, it grows out of a Calvin College course he initiated in 1988, and while he has continued teaching and refining the syllabus, it is clearly rooted in the quasi-canon of spiritually engaged films of the seventies and eighties. Anker is an English professor, but he does a very good job engaging with film as film - the continued attention to his theme of light, and a good eye, make him a real film writer, not just a lit guy slumming it at the movies.
SILENT LIGHT available at Videomatica