Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Silent Light

A farmer, Johan (Cornelio Wall), lives in Northern Mexico with his children and wife, Esther (Miriam Toews). They are Mennonites, an Anabaptist denomination so small and traditional that they speak their own language: Plautdietsch. The Mennonites are not Amish-like -- they drive cars, use mechanized pumps to milk the cows and live in fairly modern housing -- but they clearly adhere to an old-fashioned, religious code. It is surprising, then, to learn that Johan has a mistress, Marianne (Maria Pankratz). As he agonizes over who to choose, he wonders if Marianne was sent by God to bring him happiness or the devil to claim his soul.

In that slim paragraph lies the entire plot of Silent Light, a film with a running length of 145 minutes. The third feature of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas -- and the third to offer serious competition for the Palme D'Or at Cannes -- is so slow it might confound even the arthouse crowd. Yet it is also a work of striking beauty, an example to rub in the face of those who throw out the phrase "style over substance" too freely. The director hired nonprofessional, real Mennonites for the parts, yet this is not a film that investigates a nearly unheard-of subculture; in fact, it practically assumes that whatever ethical codes govern the Mennonites are cultural universals, or at least known and studied by its audience. Instead, Reygadas crafts an intimate portrait of an individual, grounding his epic shots in the moods of that character.

And the shots are epic: Silent Light opens on the stars, a deceptively standard image that one expects shall zoom in until the camera settles upon Earth. But the camera simply tilts and pans, revealing itself to already be on the Earth just as the sun crests on the horizon. It is an absolutely breathtaking piece of impressionism, held for four full minutes, one suspects, because the director understands how powerful it is. That is not to say that the shot exists for its own sake, as of course the sunrise can symbolize several things, such as marking a fresh new start for Johan's life or possibly shedding light on his illicit affair.

At other times, however, Reygadas and cinematographer Alexis Zabe linger on shots of...nothing. I don't mean shot without dialogue or some noticeable physical action: I mean nothing. Yet something eventually does happen, even if it occurs minutes into the shot. Esther knows of the affair because Johan is an honest man even in his marital dishonor. The two have an awkward, stilted conversation, and Johan is left alone at the table. The camera rests on Johan sitting impassively, boxed in by a door frame in the background, until minutes later, he bursts into tears.

The picaresque beauty of Reygadas' and Zabe's visuals, combined with Johan's religious preoccupations, suggest a comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky, one that is facile and inaccurate even as a voice in the back of my head keeps whispering, "Do it. Just say it." It is even more tempting to draw a line to Terrence Malick, particularly his work with the painterly exteriors and expressive use of light on Days of Heaven -- one could also find a certain aesthetic middle ground between Malick's lush imagery and Jim Jarmusch's deadpan minimalism. But that too is wrongheaded: Tarkovsky's camera charts the action on a spiritual level, his barely perceptible movements tracking the characters like an apparition or a guardian angel. Malick's compositions detach themselves entirely from what is actually happening, allowing for a poetic explanation and explication of the film's action. By contrast, Reygadas' camera is directly connected to the emotions of its protagonist: as Johan begins to face the tangible and psychological consequences of his affair, Reygadas moves gently from those endless exterior shots to cramped interiors cut at a faster pace, reflecting the mounting turmoil (though still nothing as quick as the average moviegoer ever sees).

The focus on Johan's emotional state leaves large narrative gaps that, as in a Jane Campion film, seem to say more than anything shown on-screen. The most powerful moment we do get to see comes when Esther finally opens up about her own feelings, just as a a torrential rainstorm begins around them, informing her husband of her own feelings of pain and disconnect that resulted from his affair. From this moment, though the camera remains rooted in Johan's perspective, Reygadas shifts the narrative focus onto the two women in his life, allowing for three-dimensional portraits of all three relevant characters. The way that these characters must come to terms with their desires and how they conflict not only with their personal senses of ethics but the spectre of cultural norms, recalls some of contemporary Asian cinema, such as the work of Edward Yang in Yi Yi or Wong Kar-wai.

(It should be noted, however, that the community does not seem concerned with condemning Johan for his actions. The Anabaptists were heavily dogmatic but also largely peaceful, but they also suffered horribly at the hands of both Catholics and Protestants. I wonder, then, if the persecution and atrocity they suffered in some way instilled an instinctive lack of judgment in its descendants. Their acceptance of Johan's feelings does not, however, lessen the tension of his wracked conscience.)

If I am searching for comparisons to make with this film it is only because Silent Light is so original that I can't help but look for something to tether it to the familiar, even if the connections are tangential. It boasts the most striking imagery -- and the most likely to be ignored by the mainstream-minded Academy -- since Tarsem Singh and Colin Watkinson's work on The Fall. Even the lens flares are gorgeous. That so minimal a film could end with a miracle -- one that leaves Marianne's metaphysical alignment between light and dark as ambiguous as ever -- almost seems realistic in the steady hands of the director and Zabe.

Perhaps the most striking element of the film, however, is time. Silent Light lacks any concrete sense of time, leaping from summer to winter in the space of a single cut. We can explain this loosely defined passage of time because everything is depicted from the perspective of a man agonizing over love. In such matters, time slows to a crawl when we are away from the one we love and wish to woo, and it passes in the blink of an eye when a window of opportunity presents itself. Silent Light is, to use that wearisome, pointless phrase, "not for everyone," but the subtlety and gently overpowering emotion of its presentation makes it one of the most striking, original and affecting films of the year*, one I simply cannot recommend enough.

*I should say that the film actually premiered at Cannes in 2007, and it made its way through the festival circuit throughout '08. So, the film has already appeared on best-of lists for two years now, but the official limited U.S. release date was in January of this year, so I'm counting it.

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