Sunday, July 20, 2008

Silent Light: Carlos Reygadas introduces threads of classicism into his languid strategies, unearths something resonant, moving, miraculous

Set within a Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonite community in Chihuahua, Mexico, Silent Light feels at once otherworldly and very much grounded in the most basic of human experiences. It’s a film about the searing caprices of desire, focusing on a love triangle at the centre of which is outwardly cheerful farmer Johan (Cornelio Wall). Johan loves Esther (Manitoba novelist Miriam Toews), the woman with whom he’s built up his life, but Johan has fallen so deeply in love with Marianne (Maria Pankratz), convinced that she’s the one he truly, spiritually connects with. And the demands of the spirit are not to be underestimated here, as this is also a film about miracles, some of which are found in the alchemical interaction of film and nature, others in acts that defy nature's predetermined logic.

Writer/director Carlos Reygadas book-ended Battle in Heaven with ethereal sequences involving a teary-eyed, pretty, young, upper-class woman fellating a working class, older man whose corporeal girth functions as emotional armour. More than anything else in Reygadas’ small but potent filmography, these sequences earned him his reputation as contemporary Mexican cinema’s enfant terrible. How interesting then to see sequences of such a similar purpose—yet on the opposite end of the taste meter—book-ending Silent Light: long, elegant, unbroken scenes which move from a field of stars to Johan’s family’s fields and back again, once our story closes. It is as though Reygadas’ camera searched the galaxy for its subject and decided to land upon this humble terrain for a spell. The film’s special emphasis on the miraculous is, from the start, made through bearing witness to the glory of the everyday.

But back to Johan’s world, where all quotidian pleasures shrink as his inner torment grows, its shadow looming large enough that his suffering Esther can hardly help but notice. Johan needs to make a serious choice, yet while adulterers in the secular world might have it tough, the milieu in which he exists, has always existed, and has no desire to part from, is far more prescriptive than those most of us know. When Johan speaks of his dilemma in terms of destiny, a friend suggests that a brave man can make destiny with what he’s got. Yet is this bravery? To avoid conflict and heartbreak when a more fulfilling life promises eventual redemption?

Reygadas considers these questions through taking deep, languid pleasure in scenes of bucolic splendour, the one in which we see Johan’s kids swimming and bathing in a local watering hole being especially beautiful—and painful. Johan tries to compliment Esther on the way she scrubs her children and the unintended use of past tense makes the whole moment turn into one of quiet agony—which Reygadas turns away from to take in sumptuously blurry flowers. Yet for all this muted despair, emotions do gradually escalate to high drama, with music (from Jacques Brel!), attempted farewells, rash acts of violence amidst tempestuous weather, and an act of generosity so pure as to summon the mercy of something like a god, while invoking a famous scene from one of the great films of Carl Dreyer in an act of inspired and audacious homage.

Reygadas, it seems, only borrows from the best sources, but he utilizes his borrowings in such a way as to give us something entirely fresh, at once classical and organic, and surely one of the most striking and unusual films you’ll see this year.

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