Silent Light

January 28, 2009

Silent Light, the new film by super-arty Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas, is the kind of movie that’s almost impossible to talk about without sounding like an asshole.  I’ve been wanting to see it for a few weeks now, but I’ve kind of had a hard time getting someone else excited about seeing it with me.

“Yo, I really want to see this movie Silent Light.”

“OK, what’s it about?”

“It’s, um…it’s about like, these Mennonites.  In Mexico.”

“Oh.”

“And, um…I guess somebody…has a crisis of faith or something.

“…”

“It’s the first movie ever filmed in Plautdietsch!”

OK, so this is clearly not a movie for everybody.  It’s slow, it’s enigmatic, the actors are all first-timers (real Mexican Mennonites!), and it’s in fucking Plautdietsch, which is a dialect spoken exclusively by Russian Mennonites.  But if you’re the sort of person whose interest is piqued by the exotic, holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-this-movie-exists factor, Silent Light is a gorgeous thoughtful movie and yeah, you’ve probably never seen anything like it.

After a six-minute opening shot of dawn breaking that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the movie, we meet Johan and family as they prepare for breakfast.  We know something’s wrong when Johan takes a solid five minutes to finish his silent prayer – clearly, this is a dude with something weighing on him.  Pretty soon, we find out what it is.  Though he’s married to Esther, he’s in love with another woman, Marianne, and has been carrying on an affair with her for two years.

It’s not that he’s afraid of getting caught.  He’s already told Esther everything, and the pain of knowing is evident in her face.   And there’s virtually no pressure on him from his community or his church – indeed, even Johan’s father the priest assures his son that he will stand by him no matter what.   So it’s up to Johan to decide what is right, and he cannot. He loves Esther, and she is the mother of his several children, but Marianne (who, it should be noted, is no more attractive or younger than Esther) feels like his soul mate, or one character calls her, his “natural woman.”

That’s about all you get in terms of drama in this story, with the exception of a few major turns toward the end that I won’t spoil.  It’s a dilemma we’ve all seen before, but Reygadas manages to use this simple problem to tackle some real heady questions – about faith, morality, and nature, to name a few – and does so not with dialogue where one character (preferably a wise old man) states the theme in no uncertain terms, but through striking photography and sound design.

A recurring theme in the film is man’s clumsy co-existence with nature.  These are Mennonites, people who live a simpler life than anyone reading this could possibly imagine, and yet Reygadas continually emphasizes how out of sync they are with nature.  That opening shot I mentioned, of a new day beginning over the sounds of wilderness, is followed by a hard cut to Johan’s home, which, austere as it is, still comes as a bit of a shock after six minutes of pure nature.  The most overwhelming sound, much louder than the birds singing and the bugs chirping, is the tick-tock of the kitchen clock, a noise so unnatural that, after his family leaves, Johan climbs onto a chair to turn it off.  Then later, when we first see Johan approach his mistress in a field of daffodils, we get a close following shot of his feet trudging through this idyllic landscape, crushing the flowers, tearing through the tall grass.  Here is man fumbling through paradise, trying to live to the impossibly perfect standards of the natural world around him, but inevitably falling short.

Another interesting topic Reygadas leaves us to ponder is the meaning of the title.   We aren’t given a clear answer, but there are scenes that may give us a hint to what the director means.  Before Johan and Marianne sleep together, Marianne first closes the curtains to block out the sun, but Reygadas’s camera lingers for a moment on the thin center of the fabric, where we can see the light still comes though.  Then in one of the film’s final scenes, a character is bathed in bright white light before committing something really only describable as a miracle.  What is the Silent Light?  Is it God?  Is there a God?  How the hell did Mennonites end up in Mexico?

If it sounds as if I’m reading a lot into Silent Light (and I probably am), it’s because this is the sort of film that invites thought.  It’s slow, deliberate pace lowers your heart beat and lulls you into a state akin to last few minutes before sleep, when your mind clears and you dare to ponder the larger questions.  Besides, what else is there to do in a dark theater during long takes of cows being milked but wonder what the hell it all means?

I loved the way this film raised those issues, and so I was a little troubled by the ending,which, for me at least, gives a pretty definitive answer to one of those Big Questions.  There are some other problems I have with the film.  Though the performances are effective, they’re of the plain-spoken non-actor variety, which means they’re played on a very low key and I could easily see somebody finding the acting and really the whole film dull. I also could have done without a few of the many scenes where one of the three main characters is weeping alone, lost and confused by their thorny situation.

But I mostly overlooked these points because, really, Silent Light of one of a kind.  It may bore you to tears if these kind of movies aren’t your thing, but for me, it’s the best damn Mexican Mennonite movie I’ve ever seen, and good enough that I’ll be sure to check out whatever crazy corner of the earth director Carlos Reygadas decides to explore next.


Who is this guy?

January 27, 2009

Why hello there,

Welcome to I Heard Different, a catalog of my various opinions and thoughts on movies, TV, sports, and other related ephemera.  Any questions?

Q: Why are you doing this?

A: Well, let’s see.  I have always been an opinionated person, particularly about the things I enjoy most.  For years, I have been torturing various family and friends with extended tirades about things they probably don’t give a shit about (“Benjamin Button is garbage!”).   I guess it’s about time I found an outlet for these opinions and a blog that no one will read seems like a pretty good option.

It’ll also be a nice to be on record, so a couple years down the line when I inexplicably change my mind on something (Future me: “You know what’s actually not as bad as I remembered? –  that Brad Pitt movie with the backwards aging”), there will exist concrete evidence of exactly the hell I was thinking.

Q: What kind of stuff are you into?

A: I hate that question and generally any question of its ilk (what kind of music do you listen to?), so I’ll spare you any sort of pathetic attempt to define my tastes.  Instead, here are a few recent observations/opinions on the relevant subjects.

1.  I watched Slumdog Millionaire last night, thought it was pretty good, then got on the train and had completely forgotten about it by the time I got home.  It was about a 20 minute train ride.

Really, IMDb users?  This is #30 movie of all time?

I also found The Dark Knight and Wall-E to be good , but overrated.  Some 2008 movies that I actually liked are, in no particular order: A Christmas Tale, Rachel Getting Married, Man on Wire, Bigger Stronger Faster, HappyGoLucky, Let the Right One In, and The Wrestler.

2. I watch many of the expected TV shows for a city dwelling white dude in his 20s (30 Rock, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Top Chef, The Wire, etc), but I also love the shit out of low-rent reality shows! – particuarly the shameless stuff on VH1 and occasionally MTV.  Yeah, it’s lowbrow and super exploitative and mean-spirited, but you’re kidding yourself if you can’t find some shred of truth on the likes of Rock of Love, I Love Money, and Bromance (to name a few recent faves).  Of course, it isn’t “reality” but there’s someting I find interesting in people willfully playing caricatures of themselves while taking part in a big fake drama, then inevitably getting caught in the drama and emotionally invested in what they thought would be a big joke.  When you hear these girls on Rock of Love saying they’re in love with Bret Michaels after two weeks on the show and a total of five minutes spent with him, they’re not bullshitting.  They’re probably not “in love,” but you can’t blame them for saying so when the producers have complete control over their lives and basically keep them sleep-deprived and bored (you can’t leave the set, there’s no TV, etc) except for the moments when the intended object of their affection swoops in and whisks them away on some fairy tale date involving horses.

I could go on about this for a while, but I don’t want to get off on a tangent.  In conclusion, these shows are great because they’re like demented, totally unethical social experiments.  Yeah, it’s kind of disgusting that 90% of television is like this, but it’s not going anywhere so you might as well enjoy it.

3.  I have a pretty esoteric Netflix queue and I use it to try to fill in my blind spots in cinema history (wow – that sentence makes me sound like an asshole!).  There’s something about that damned service that guilts me into watching stuff I would never pick out at a video store  – maybe it’s because I’m kind of a cheap ass and I feel like I have to keep watching movies to get my money’s worth.  Although that didn’t stop me from having The New World for six months without even starting it (still haven’t seen it) and or for currently having Killer of Sheep for three months and counting!

Anyway, I plan on doing write-ups on the films I watch via Netflix that are particularly worth comment, so there’ll be some pretty random reviews posted here.  You’ve been warned.

4.  Those are definitely the three topics (new movies, TV, old movies) that I’ll be covering most, but among my other interests that might pop up from time to time are sports (although I’vebeen sort of avoiding this topic since the Eagles lost to the fucking Arizona Cardinals!), music (I’m usually the last guy to discover cool music.  Have you guys heard of MGMT?),  books (embarassed to say I’m not a big reader but I occasionally read something and flip out over it.), and much more! (although probably not)

Q: Last question.  Are you done yet?

A: Yes, I’m sorry.  That ended up getting pretty long-winded for a simple intro.  But I got started with the impassioned defense of reality TV and it was all downhill from there.

That is all for now.  Hopefully it gives you a sense of who I am and what this blog will be about.  Be back shortly.