Silent Light (Stellet licht)
Silent Light may be less confrontational than Carlos Reygadas’ previous films, but it still presents a mighty challenge for viewer and reviewer.
For starters, it devotes two and a quarter hours to a plot that’s barely a sound bite: In a small Mennonite community that could be anywhere but judging from the occasional Spanish-speaking passerby is actually in Chihuahua, farmer Johan (Cornelio Wall) has got himself into a love triangle with wife Esther (Miriam Toews) and mistress Marianne (Maria Pankratz). A certain amount of domestic discord stews – very slowly – in the run up to tragedy. And then, in a narrative jolt that’s open to wide interpretation, a miracle occurs.
But for most of the film this story barely ticks over, while Reygadas and cinematographer Alexis Zabe get stuck into a mildly unnerving experiment. The memorable opening shot, a composite five minute pan from night sky to sunrise with invisible seams, not only positions the story squarely as a rural fairytale but also sets the pace. Vast stretches of screen time are devoted to lengthy pans across landscape and laborers, or conversations which pause while the camera examines the horizon, or acres of silent contemplation of human faces with no conversation at all.
The film is mostly in the Mennonite’s Plautdietsch dialect and entirely performed by non-professional actors, complete with wildly varying delivery and occasional half-glances at the camera. Half a year passes abruptly between two scenes, and then another season goes by before the next one, while Johan’s dilemma changes hardly at all. At one point Jacques Brel gets some lengthy attention, apparently for no reason other than that Reygadas likes a song of his.
While the audience grapples with all this formal disconcertion, the melancholy of the non-performances and the austere setting at times meld into something close to authentic documentary power, but are just as often merely infuriating. Wall, said by Reygadas to be an unconventional Mennonite even before his decision to appear here, has several touching moments: Johan drives his truck in aimless circles while singing along to the radio like a teenager, a middle-aged stoic surprised at his own giddy pleasure. He goes ’round for a very long time.
You have to wonder if the view that this film might be a masterpiece will gain much traction in the long run, but it’s certainly a singular piece of work and poses some serious questions: What happens if you throw overboard the usual elements expected of a cinematic story and give the audience little aesthetic cubes of still-life instead? What do you get if you present a human micro-drama in a way which guarantees the viewer will get several man-hours of mental free association to pass the time before the lights come back up? It seems you might get the closest thing to a stanza of written poetry that a moving picture can possibly conjure up, but I’m not sure that I actually wanted anyone to ask.
© 2008 Tim Hayes. All rights reserved.
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