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.”
“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.