Film Review: Silent Light

Mexican bad boy Carlos Reygadas’ latest film, a languorous drama about Mennonites in northern Mexico, is alternately spellbinding and stiflingly self-conscious.

Stillness and silence are grievously underused commodities in movies these days. Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light jars you into realizing how compulsively busy and noisy most stuff on screen is—and how conditioned we are to expect that. This strange film, a sort of ethnographic-romantic melodrama set in a community of Mennonites in northern Mexico, has a pace best described as audaciously languorous (even by standards of foreign art cinema) and a soundtrack dominated not by human voices or music, but noises of place, time and routine: clocks ticking, cows mooing, farm machines grinding, boots crunching down on dry weeds, and wind sifting through blades of grass.

The experience of watching Silent Light—something best done after a restorative nap and a hefty dose of caffeine—is at times a cleansing and hypnotic one. Reygadas’ previous two films, Japón and Battle in Heaven, suffocated under a visual virtuosity that for all its auteurish-ness felt more technical than personal. Silent Light, about a farmer torn between a wife he loves and a mistress he loves more, is a step forward: the most mature, haunting work to date from a director known as the “enfant terrible” of Mexican cinema. And yet I still found the formal rigor of his new film intermittently off-putting. The silence, stillness and slowness are welcome to a point; then they start to feel more like an act of rebellion, or at least extreme self-indulgence, than a sincere approach to the material.

There’s an undeniably intriguing air of novelty about Silent Light, which premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival: It takes place in Mexico, it’s the first movie shot in the medieval German dialect of Plautdietsch, and it features a cast of Mennonite nonprofessionals. The story itself revolves around a fairly standard crisis of faith: How can Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), a farmer and family man married to the loyal Esther (Miriam Toews), reconcile his regularly consummated passion for Marianne (Maria Pankratz) with his devotion to God?

The fact that this triangle exists within an austere religious context yields an unexpected thematic curveball. Johan is so certain of his feelings for Marianne that he wonders whether his affair is a blessing rather than a curse. His dilemma therefore comes not only from the fear that adultery is driving him away from God, but also from the possibility—crueler and more punishing—that it is in fact drawing him closer; in Silent Light, the central betrayal is laced with a promise of true love and a purer, more honest life.

The director’s style here is typified by long shots that give new meaning to the word long; zooms so slow you almost don't see the movement; meticulously composed widescreen images of landscapes; and documentary-style close-ups of daily Mennonite rituals involving prayer and land-tending. There have been comparisons with Terrence Malick’s undervalued masterpiece The New World, in which the lyricism felt wholly organic, as well as purposefully and imaginatively tied to the material. But there remains something fussy and hermetic-seeming about Reygadas’ work, and the self-consciously deliberate rhythm and painstaking aesthetic control sometimes feel unjustified and, more bothersome yet, stifling.

Still, lengthy stretches of Silent Light held me in thrall: a gorgeously filmed sequence in which Johan and Esther bathe their young children in a river, casually relishing the paradise before the fall; a conversation between Johan and his father in which the latter confesses to his own past infidelity, and another between Johan and Marianne in which they try to end their relationship once and for all; the wrenching scene in which Esther’s hurt, muted for so long, finally simmers up toward the surface, paving the way for a miracle that in conventional movie language (something likely to make Reygadas wince) might be called a final twist.

In these passages and several others, Reygadas fuses his style with his story to spellbinding effect: He makes us feel the pain, but also the fierce spiritual strength, roiling beneath his characters' deadpan serenity; he succeeds in fully immersing us—mind, heart and senses—in this unusual world, without calling attention to his effort and without fetishizing his subjects. Silent Light is a hard film to love, but it just might be an even harder one to shake. And once its director’s investment in storytelling matches his investment in his own talent for crafting images, he is going to become an even greater force to be reckoned with.