A black screen, stars glinting in the night sky. A black screen, stars glinting in the night sky. A black screen, stars glinting in the night sky. And then… a hint of dawn, suffuse plumes of light billowing up into the sky, seeping across the landscape. The twitter of birds, the lowing of cattle. Trees, outlined, hunkered beneath a scattering of heavy clouds. And finally… daylight.
Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light opens with the most extraordinary shot of the year, a six-minute time-lapse sequence that’ll have some viewers gasping at its heavenly beauty, others checking their watches. If you’re in the former camp, then settle down for a transcendental experience; those in the latter had best get their coats.
Set among a real-life Mennonite community in North Mexico, Silent Light tells the story of Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr): husband, father, adulterer. His affair, of course, flies in the stern face of his devout faith – a blight on community, family and soul. Yet an unshakable conviction that Marianne (Maria Pankratz) is his “natural woman” renders him powerless to end it, with a tormented Johan forced to ponder if this is a test from God or the devil’s hand, as he shuffles through the daily rituals of his rural life and the changing seasons.
Shot in long, languorous takes bathed in natural light and forcefully performed by non-actors speaking in their native tongue – Plautdietsch, a form of medieval German – Silent Light is both austere and listlessly lyrical, recalling the cinema of Tarkovsky, Dreyer and Kiarostami. It is, like Reygadas’ previous films Japon and Battle In Heaven, a murky meditation on life and death, faith and rebirth; and as in those pictures the primary focus is the human story, with any moments of divine intervention refracted through the characters’ actions and illuminated by their compassion and sacrifices.
Beaten to the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival by Christian Mungiu’s compulsive social realism drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days (to be reviewed next issue), Reygadas’ third film nonetheless confirms him as a genuine auteur with a rare – and rarefied – vision.