Silent Light - Stellet Licht
|Cornelio Wall Fehr||Johan|
|Directed by||Carlos Reygadas|
"All non-believers and men stealers talkin' in the name of religion
And there's a slow, slow train comin' up around the bend." Bob Dylan, Slow Train
Carlos Reygadas opens on a pitch-black screen, where we discover a star, then more stars; and gradually, almost imperceptibly, the scene lightens into dawn in a field. The shot lasts about six minutes. By the time it ends, you'll have gotten the message that this is going to be a slow, slow train.
We've seen this opening before, but seldom if ever at such audacious length. It's beautiful, it's hypnotic, and it sets the tone for the film. Silent Light, the Mexican director's third feature (Japan, Battle in Heaven) is a love triangle located in a Mennonite community in Mexico. Johnan (Cornelio Wall) is a farmer with a bunch of children and a loving wife, Esther (Miriam Toews). He also has a mistress, although that is a crude way to put it. Let us instead use the words of his best friend, Zacarias (Jacobo Klassen), to whom he confides his illicit passion: "You've found your natural woman. Very few know what that means."
The natural woman is Marianne (Maria Pankratz), who runs a restaurant in town. Johan has told Esther about his love for Marianne. He's an honorable fellow. He also confides in his father (Peter Wall), who admits to Johan that he went through a similar temptation when he was young. "I wouldn't want to be in your shoes," the old man says wistfully, "but I somehow also envy you."
What his father envies is the agonized, ecstatic sense of being alive that passion brings. But the price is steep. Before they head out on their day's chores, Johan tells Esther he loves her. He says it miserably, and she replies with equal misery that she knows. When she leaves he bursts into horrible tears, and gets up on a chair, in a manner not uncommonly linked with hanging oneself. But he's only stopping the wall clock that has been ticking loudly through the silent breakfast.
Clock-stopping symbolism is one of the failings of this sometimes heavy-handed movie. But there is a painful sincerity to Silent Light that can be absolutely entrancing. The director keeps his camera motionless much of the time, lingering on shots exquisitely framed by Director of Photography Alexis Zabe. And he does linger. Most of the mood is somber, or placid, or roiling with internalized anguish. Only once does Johan get a little giddy, driving his pickup truck exuberantly in circles around Zacarias's yard after their talk, singing to a tune on the radio, while the camera follows like a puppy exhilarated by its master's unexpected show of high spirits.
The clandestine meetings between Johan and Marianne are intense and passionate, but fraught with guilt. After they make love in the back room of her restaurant, Marianne murmurs "This was the last time. Peace is stronger than love." They then go in search of Johan's children, whom they've left unattended, and who have wound up in the yard sitting in the van of a visiting American, watching a playful Jacques Brel singing on television. Johan, his passion slaked, climbs into the back seat with his kids, chuckling at the performance while Marianne retreats sadly to the restaurant, no doubt ruminating on the appetites and attention spans of men.
This kind of situation can't go on forever, and the emotional stakes are raised in the film's third act, which brings a denouement that takes us into the realm of spiritual magic realism.
Reygadas has cast his movie with non-actors, and for the most part they carry their performances off well. Most of them are Mennonites, many from the same families. Johan's parents are played by the actor's real father and mother. Toews is a Canadian novelist who grew up in the church. As Esther she has a difficult scene of heartbreak which she plays wrenchingly. The principle language of the film is Plautdeitsch (Mennonite Low German). The only actual religious service in the film is a service for the dead, and includes a hymn that will persuade you that Mennonites are not in it for the music.
These are not horse-and-buggy Mennonites. They drive trucks, they use milking machines, and while they don't have television, we've seen that they can enjoy it. But by placing his story in the simplicity of this community, Reygadas emphasizes the bare emotional anguish of this classic romantic triangle of love and betrayal. Mennonites, it seems, are no more proof against the temptations of the flesh and heart than the rest of us. They do, however, have the comfort of ascribing it to God's will.
There's no denying the film's visual beauty. And if you are willing and able to allow yourself the patience to enter into the rhythm of the story, and slow your pulse to its pace, you will find it a powerful, even a stunning experience. For some, that is going to be too much of an allowance to make, and these people will find the movie pretentious and boring. Cannes was moved to give it the Jury Prize.
That opening sunrise shot, mirrored by its reverse at the end, embraces the beauty and the pacing and the universal message of the film. It calls to mind a line from Ecclesiastes: "The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose."
Only here, it never hasteth.
© Text 2009 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be