The Humanists: Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007)


by Colin Marshall

Silent Light's opening shot, a gradual four-and-a-half-minute predawn push across a bucolic field as the sun inches over the horizon, signals everything about the sensibility and aesthetic to come. It's a cautious yet intimate venture into several different levels of foreignness at once, reverently observational and hyper-aware of the wealth of detail that surrounds it. Here, I suddenly and gratefully recognized upon first viewing, is a film that's not going to mess around with the usual cinematic shorthand of visual, sonic and narrative cliché.

Given that, perhaps “first experience” should replace “opening shot.” Carlos Reygadas demonstrates beyond all doubt that he both understands and readily wields cinema's potential to happen to its audience, rather than merely to throw up sound-and-light summaries of one damn thing after another. Many directors have worked for twenty, thirty, forty years — often prolifically and lucratively — and still failed to grasp this range of their medium's capabilities. But a film like this makes up for several hundred of those content to be their own Cliffs Notes.

Its simple story centers on a romantic dilemma endured by Johan Voth, a middle-aged Mennonite farmer embedded in his remote northern Mexico community. After having fathered a lookalike brood and ostensibly settled down with the unthrilling but loyal and patent Esther, he's discovered the fascinatingly distant, exotically angular Marianne. One of Johan's confidants calls her his “natural woman,” and he grows more and more inclined to agree. Meeting Marianne for assignations on isolated hills or above her restaurant, Johan comes to believe he's hitched himself to the wrong woman. But how on Earth, so deep in such a cloistered, frowning milieu, to right his mistake?

The meetings aren't exactly surreptitious. Johan's friends know. Esther knows. Everyone seems to know but his kids and his mom, and that's only if his dad hasn't let it slip. Seeking counsel from the weathered preacher who raised him, Johan hears his personal struggle cast in the epic yet unhelpful terms of the grander one between good and evil themselves. “What's happening to you is the work of the enemy,” Johan's father placidly insists, recounting his defeat of his own almost-affair by way of pure self-denial.

Arguing for the opposition is Johan's mechanic buddy Zacarias, who chalks up Marianne's entrance as not an evil-driven test but one of the sacred doings of God. Clearly, the available theology isn't going to solve Johan's problem, nor has the search for answers within himself borne fruit. At a stroke, he's been delivered the most incandescent joy ever to illuminate his plain life as well as the crippling blow that seems to bring its undoing. Marianne feels no different: “This is the saddest time of my life, Johan,” she admits in a reflective postcoital moment, “but also the best.”

Riding shotgun as Johan drives under an increasingly gray, rainy sky, Esther laments their situation, sounding for all the world not like a devout farm wife but a member of a troubled couple in any place or time. “Remember when we loved traveling like this? We couldn't stop singing. We were always happy. Just being next to you was the pure feeling of being alive. I was part of the world. Now, I am separated from it.”

As the weather worsens, a wave of sickness rapidly overtakes Esther, forcing her outside the car and into the downpour. Searching after her, Johan finds his wife unconscious, slumped against the base of a tree. A pair of passing Mexican truckers take then to a hospital, where a doctor reveals that Esther has died of coronary trauma. The stunned Johan is no less mystified when the doctor suggests “obesity” and “alcoholism” as possible sources of the scrawny Mennonite woman's heart trouble.

Though presumably a solution of sorts, Esther's passing fixes nothing, and Johan looks finally engulfed by the bleakness of it all. At this point, the film sounds like a standard tale of the tragedy that results when irreconcilable promises, plans and passion collide. One clue that it isn't, not the first though probably the biggest, is Esther's resurrection — by Marianne. It turns out that amid all this pensive realism exists more than a little magic.

A long-suffering, literally broken-hearted casualty rises from the dead in a hinterland of believers? The movie now sounds like some sort of biblical parable about loyalty, sacrifice and forgiveness. What's more, the inclusion of an actual miracle would seem to signal a strong position on any number of complex religious issues. But in the event, it's unclear what, if anything, the film or any of its makers believe, a continuation of Reygadas' existing penchant for dealing with events on which religion bears while keeping a distance from religion itself. Did they want to show their own perception, or make cinematically real the perceptions of others? Are the depicted acts of God literal, metaphorical, actual, allegorical or not really there at all? Of those works that raise these questions, the best leave them unanswered. This one, on a higher level altogether, leaves them unanswerable.

This confusion of the issue comes from the reality, specific to the picture, that Reygadas crafts. It observes real-life details like ticking clocks and passing trucks — mundanities, really — so closely that it at first feels as though it could take place nowhere but our own world. But it's all defamiliarized, to a degree, by the kind of sublime aestheticization that renders even the clocks and the trucks as striking artifacts of the awake-dreaming borderlands. Even aside from Esther's return to the mortal coil, smaller implausibilities and absurtidies pepper the story, as when the season is surprisingly revealed to have suddenly turned to a white-blanketed winter or when the children pile into a van and gaze, delighted, at an ancient Jacques Brel special glowing from the onboard television.

Describe this film as a piece of magic realism set among the Plautdietsch-speaking, modernity-eschewing denizens of the state of Chihuahua and it's going to come off as absurdly, almost perversely alien to the modern viewer's experience. Argue that, on the contrary, there's much here to recognize and sympathize with, and you hit the wall on the other side. In the archetypal qualities of Johan, Esther and Marianne, a viewer might well see himself and others reflected, and certainly their envirnoment, with its long, dusty roads and ungaily American sedans and pickups, looks and feels less like a world apart than the Coen brothers' recreation of 1980 western Texas in No Country for Old Men. (Johan's ever-present Radio Shack-y calculator watch being one of the lighter details supporting this.) But the deliberately-built differences between Silent Light's realm and the one in which it's watched add up, somehow permitting both reality and unreality.

Those seeking a probing look into the marital ways of today's Mexico-based Mennonites are unlikely to find it here. The ethnographic setting serves as little more than an appropriate, if unexamined, framework for the relationship dramas within — which it does awfully well. It also contains more than sufficient fodder for debate about the supernatural, provided you're into that sort of thing. The combination owes something to Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet, of which the newer production has been described, not entirely without cause, as something of a remake.

But Silent Light is, on the experiential level, about different things than any of its spiritual predecessors, or even than the themes it seems to possess itself. Infidelity, death and resurrection will remain fascinating as long as humanity persists, but this is a film whose very fiber is made up of visual and sonic texture. It's not just about, but is, the rich sensory events which convey its story: altered breathing after proscribed acts of love, children plunging into a creek, boots compressing the snow beneath, a thresher tearing its way through corn stalks, eyes tentatively reopening after they'd been thought forever closed.

All feedback happily accepted at colinjmarshall at gmail.