Patient and willfully obscure, Carlos Reygadas’ body of work requires audience participation through reverent observation, compelling the viewer to linger and ponder stationary images, scarcely moving the eye of the camera beyond a glacial tracking shot. The infrequent edits and restrictive pace align the composition to Silent Light’s subject, channelling the perspective of Mexico’s Mennonite community instead of exploiting it, constructing art that is free of illusion and bound by simple truth, generating traces of the divine amidst the mundane. The viewer awakens to the conceits of the film through its introduction, a luminous sunrise, adapting to the flow of the narrative and visual language by way of extended metaphor, surrendering to a meditative and defiantly spiritual form of cinema.
As the camera stares at the tenebrous sky, transfixed by gleaming constellations, reverberations of insects and cattle chime in from the unseen vastness, acting as a soundtrack for five minutes of stargazing. Motion is slight, as if lulled by the repetitive chirps and oneiric stillness, arcing only to convey the immensity of space, gradually seceding to dawn through time-lapsed footage. The tranquility of the image overwhelms as soft blues and yellow beams of sunlight build on the horizon, the camera sleepwalking towards the illumination, parting the tree line to gaze directly at the burnt orange texture of daybreak.
The resonance of the exterior noise infiltrates the kitchen of an achromatic farmhouse, paralleled by the ticking pendulum of a clock that hangs above the doorframe. Speaking in Low German, a family of eight prepares breakfast, uniting through prayer and quiet contemplation. An unsaid distance emerges between the adults at the table, expressed through mournful glances passed from dutiful wife to inexpressive husband. As Esther (Miriam Toews) and the children rise from their seats, she places a hand on her husband’s shoulder and implores him to rest alone for a moment in the sparse dining room. Ceasing the clicking of the clock and slumping back into his wooden chair, Johan (Cornelio Wall) begins to weep, quietly hyperventilating under the weight of his catharsis as the camera gracefully edges towards him.
The rhythm is sedate and phlegmatic on the surface, but never dull, holding the viewer rapt in the innate elegance of the color palette and sound design. Reygadas allows lens flare and distortion to impart realism, conjuring remembered experiences of rippling wind and the pant of a contented dog through hollow, echo-laden vibrations. The photography channels intimacy through an analogous proximity, resting on the shoulders of Johan and his mistress, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), as they share a clandestine tryst at the apex of a mountain. Pink and yellow reflections sparkle on the film as the couple engages in a passionate kiss, the effect precipitated by the harshness of the sun’s rays captured in tight close up and the bursts of color that blossom by drifting in and out of focus.
There’s a modesty to the sexuality depicted on screen, revealed only in faint glances and tender embraces. The ripples of rain dribbling into a puddle and warm glow seeping through venetian blinds draw cinematographer Alexis Zabe’s attention during lustful passages, his eye wafting back to the matter at hand to analyze the contours of Marianne’s face and pool of sweat accumulating on her neck as she reaches climax. The emotional impact of their affair is far more vital to the narrative than the details of their fornication and Marianne’s reluctance to sustain the liaison inspires Johan to confess the sum of his faults to the dejected Esther. The pair say adieu in secret, Marianne stealing a graze of Johan’s wrist behind his back as the comical ballad playing on television transforms into an elegy for their forbidden love.
Wracked with guilt, Johan divulges the extent of his relationship with Marianne to Esther during a leisurely drive, inspiring his ordinarily serene wife to call his paramour “a damn whore.” As torrents of precipitation ricochet off of the sedan’s roof, Esther clasps her chest and persuades her husband to pull over, rushing into the woods in a nauseous and depressive state. Frantically sobbing as she picks the loose bark from a sodden tree, Esther removes her shawl, symbolically lifting the veil of silence and unmasking her sorrow, plunging to the wet ground as the pain in her breast reaches its zenith. The camera keeps its distance as Johan discovers her body and bellows at the sky, suggesting our inability to fathom his misery and reflecting the distance between the couple prior to Esther’s coronary episode.
Shots of her casket, constructed of linens and flanked by white candles in silver candelabras, are a facsimile of the closing images of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet and the similitude between both funeral sequences is indisputable. Yet, Ordet stressed the power of faith, while Carlos Reygadas’ film perfectly elucidates its title, illustrating the magnificence in plain sight and the unseen motivation that exists on the periphery. Silent Light manages to embrace the secular while invoking the supernatural, indulging in the majesty of the physical world and finding credence in celestial influence.
Silent Light (Palisades Tartan, 2007)
Written and Directed by Carlos Reygadas
Photographed by Alexis Zabe