Carlos Reygadas’ ‘Silent Light’ (Stellet Licht) is a film that takes it time, carefully and with extreme poise. Set in a Mennonite community in Northern Mexico that established its roots after WWI, ‘Silent Light’ employs the extraordinary beauty of wide rural landscapes and the rigid and quiet gestures of the Mennonites to tell a story about yearning, love and hurt.
Johan (played by Cornelio Wall Fehr) is a soft-hearted man who grapples with betraying his wife Esther (Miriam Toews) and family in his love affair with Marianne (Maria Pankratz), the woman he knows to be his heart’s true match. The films opens with a stunning time-lapse shot that magically feels merely like an ever so gradual tilt from a black star-filled sky to a flattened horizon filling with orange light and the wild sounds of morning. We are drawn slowly to a house where an old clock ticks loudly on the wall. In total silence and stillness, a thin, pale and blonde family prays before their morning meal. Johan opens his eyes to look at his wife Esther. A moment passes. Esther opens her eyes to look at Johan who has now closed his eyes.
The finesse of ‘Silent Light’ lies in the balance between muted emotions and erratic bursts of deep, piercing expressions handled gracefully by the largely non-actor cast. There is a tension that lies sharp under an thick layer of peaceful-looking stoicism among the three main characters. When each of the three bursts open, however, their pain is all too real.
Alexis Zabé’s cinematography is decadent. Shallow focus often puts the viewer uncomfortably close to the characters, their low whispery voices resonating loudly, their odd and awkward features magnified. Characters walk out of frame or only take up only part of the frame and Zabé leaves us lingering in this negative space, among gorgeous detail whose silence speaks loudly. The perfectly timed camera movement is extraordinarily graceful and is a pleasure to watch. There are dozens of unbearably beautiful moments in this film thanks to Zabé’s daring style. Zabé and Reygadas together pull the viewer into a totally self-contained world where supernatural rural beauty mirrors complex emotional landscapes; where pain lies in honesty, honesty cannot divorce itself from love, and love necessarily trembles from fear of loss.
In the end, a magical realist finale subverts tragedy as a gesture of pure love on Marianne’s part brings Johan and Esther back to one another. The camera turns back to the sky in a last time-lapse shot almost rendering this stark Mennonite microcosm a dream-like vision from a planet far away.
It is no wonder ‘Silent Light’ won the Jury Prize at Cannes among two dozen other awards. It takes some patience–or at least a deep breath and commitment to getting comfortable–to absorb ‘Silent Light’. And that commitment is the beauty of great cinéma. ‘Silent Light’ is well worth it. See it at the Film Forum from January 7th to the 20th.