Director of Photography:
Running time: 127 minutes
Original title: Stellet licht
Alternative title: Luz silenciosa
It is not only light that is silent in Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’s third film: the characters’ world seems to be in perpetual stasis, though we rarely get the sense that they are frustrated with their quiet way of life. It is refreshing to see a heavily faith-based community presented in a way that makes them appear completely understanding and accepting of human nature, and it is this aspect that raises the film above similar other projects dealing with the same dramatic thread.
The three main characters are Johan, his wife Esther, and Johan’s mistress Marianne, who all form part of a small Mennonite community in Mexico, and almost all the dialogue is in Plautdietsch – a mixture between Dutch and German, with a pronunciation that made me think of Danish. Esther knows about Marianne, because Johan has told her about his mistress from the very start. We discover this important piece of information when Johan confesses to his father, the local preacher, about the affair, and the handful of scenes that precede their conversation is filled with tender moments of interaction between Johan and Esther that make it clear there is love and affection but not without some unknown sadness.
When discussing this film, audiences will focus on the rhythm of the film and the second to last scene, which is very reminiscent of the famous climax in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, though Reygadas refuses to provide a simple “miracle” and instead his film ends on a suitably ambiguous note. The rhythm of the film is slow without being overbearing, and while the camera certainly takes its time recording what seems to be the minutiae of everyday life in the community, the frames are not void of action, and the many actions that do cross the screen are all of great importance to the characters. Perhaps it was not necessary to record a very long take of Johan driving, in which the camera first shows us the road in front of the car, and then Johan at the wheel, but the tedium of this particular scene early in the film quickly dissipates.
The honesty of the main character is admirable and so is the complete lack of judgment of his affair in this tiny community – an affair that ultimately (at least, indirectly) leads to a tragedy. Distinctions between good and bad may only be made by the viewer, for the film does not venture into such territory of clear-cut oppositions, and the drama that does exist is the result of the viewer’s projections and expectations based on the material that is given to us in a very straightforward manner that is unembellished. The film also uses non-professional actors to create a world that is plain yet far from simple.
Silent Light opens and closes with impressive shots that seem to bring cosmic significance to the film, and the sustained lens flares during a romantic scene on a hill also make visible the presence of light in the characters’ lives. The amazing state of grace in which these characters exist is beautiful to behold and a far cry from the usual dramatic tension that results from actions, reactions and tension between polar opposites. The film seems to relate an optimism about forgiveness, but it is important to note the central issue that is the internal struggle of all three main characters and how they deal with it. While Silent Light is entirely divested of extradiegetic music, it does contain a very touching moment in a van when Johan and his children watch Jacques Brel on television performing “Les Bonbons”, a song whose lyrics vaguely mirror Johan’s love triangle.
Carlos Reygadas has made a very special film that illuminates the isolated community of the Mennonites in Mexico and while one might argue that the story is too small for a two-hour film, the pace of the film is as steady and as firm as the flow of the characters’ lives and these lives end up unexpectedly moving our emotions.