September 30, 2007
Silent Light, 2007
On the surface, it's hard to find fault with the execution of Carlos Reygadas's latest film, Silent Light, a timeless tale of love, betrayal, desire, and sacrifice set within a remote (and appropriately atemporal) Mennonite community in rural northern Mexico. Nevertheless, despite an implicitly spiritual context that is suggested by the religious community setting, and drawing loose inspiration on themes from Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet, Reygadas's vision subverts expectation in its portrait of eternal human struggle, not as a path towards transcendence, but rather, as evidence of immanence in the everyday ritual. Reygadas visually encapsulates this sense of quotidian grace in the remarkable, bookending long take of a desolate landscape transforming under the diurnal revolution of an oblate earth - the kind of meticulous, vaguely oneiric, self-contained opening shots that have come to define his cinema - as the sublime image of a transforming, yet eternal nature cuts to the disconnected image of a Mennonite farmer, Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and their children in quiet prayer (in a sense, a personal expression of silent grace) before eating their breakfast. In its abrupt visual and tonal shift, the film's oblique segue also suggests the influence of Lisandro Alonso's inverted narrative form in Los Muertos, where the introductory shots of a tactile, corporeal reality gives way to a metaphoric journey of interiority. Moreover, in its cyclical representation of life and death, good and evil, beginning and ending of relationships, Reygadas also channels familiar Bruno Dumont themes and the essentiality of his representational images (most notably, in the framing of landscape and casting of non-actors as physical archetypes) to create a film that is decidedly anti-Dumont. This seemingly conscious subversion of Dumont's aesthetics is perhaps best exemplified by a sequence involving a reckless driver in a red pickup truck who tailgates Johan on a desolate stretch of road before speeding away - an episode that invites immediate association with the ominous encounter of Twentynine Palms. It is this repeating pattern of adoption and subversion of familiar, repurposed images throughout the film that, for all its elegant cinematography and self-awareness of its role as art, ultimately detracts from the singularity of Reygadas's admirable vision, a puzzling strategy for realizing impeccably constructed, personal filmmaking through the filtered reconstitution of borrowed gazes and short hand iconography.