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Monday, September 21, 2009

Silent Light

The title of this film, written and directed by Carlos Reygados, is very Bergmanesque. The two words of the title are featured in two of Bergman's "faith" trilogy, Winter Light and The Silence. It turns out that not only the title suggests Bergman, but the plot and structure of the film do as well, not to mention that faith is the theme at the core of things.

Reygados, a Mexican filmmaker, sets the film in his country, but it is about outsiders--specifically Mennonites who farm in the state of Chihuahua and speak German. They are not the strictly orthodox that we associate with Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in that they drive cars and wear wristwatches, but they are austere people. We meet our main characters, two parents and seven (I think) children before they eat breakfast. The camera lingers on their faces as they are in silent prayer, and only eat when the father (Cornelio Wall) says "Amen."

When Wall, left alone by his family after they finish eating, breaks into sobs, we sense something is up. Turns out he is in love with another woman. His wife (Miriam Toews) knows all about it. Wall, despite knowing he is hurting his wife, can not stop the affair. When he seeks counsel from his father, he is told it is the work of the devil, but Wall thinks that it is instead the work of God.

Wall has another assignation with his mistress, Maria Pankratz, (in an interesting twist she is older and plainer than Toews), and when he confesses it to Toews tragedy ensues. But as with Bergman films such as Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander, not is all as it seems, and the film ends hopefully.

This is a very slow-moving film. It clocks in at over two hours, but has perhaps a half an hour of what could be called action. The rest is very long takes of the days and nights just passing by, including a long opening shot of a sunrise (which is counterpointed at the end by a sunset). It takes a while before a person accustomed to films with scenes lasting an average of five seconds to get in rhythm with a picture where takes can last minutes. We see long shots of people just walking across a field, or a car driving down the highway. It's as if Reygados is saying, "Relax, what's your hurry?" which is kind of bold in this day and age. Reygados also favors a still camera, allowing the actors to move in and out of frame (and sometimes he points it away from them, so they are speaking out of frame).

Because there's so little action and dialogue, when things do happen they stand out. Toews, when told by Wall of his latest indiscretion, simply mutters, "Damn whore," which in this film is equivalent to a plate-throwing screaming fit in another film. At another point Panklatz, who tells Wall that their affair is over, says, "This is the saddest time of my life, but also the best," an incongruity that in the context of this film makes perfect sense.

This film does not suffer impatience, but I found it to be moving and beautiful nonetheless, with some excellent naturalistic acting (particularly by the children). I would advise you to watch it wide awake, though.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you liked it. I still think it could have found a decent arthouse audience, despite its deliberate pace, if only it had more distribution muscle behind it.

    Along the same lines, I think it's a film that's easier in a theater, when you're watching on a big screen, and distractions are minimal (provided a cooperative audience, of course).

    But anyway, good review.