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September 30, 2007

Silent Light, 2007

silentlight.gifOn 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.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 30, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York Film Festival


"Adoption and subversion of familiar, repurposed images" is a great encapsulation of the film, even though I was thinking more of Dreyer (obviously) and Bresson (the emhasis on doors)...but I can definitely see your points about Alonso and Dumont, too. This film just seems too self-aware of itself as an Art Film and as Spiritual Art--it's visually stunning and perfectly performed, but it all somehow feels academic, as if Reygadas is plowing through a notebook of rules he formulated while watching other movies.

Posted by: Doug Cummings on Oct 02, 2007 10:34 AM | Permalink

Thanks for dropping by, Doug. Exactly! I think I used the word "recipe" in my initial reaction to the film on Girish's blog, and his approach on "how to make a spiritual art film" really did seem very paint-by-numbers. Good call on Bresson and doorways. I was seeing doorways throughout the Demirkubuz retrospective (he also uses it as a metaphor for spiritual captivity), I can't believe I missed that. There was the hand wound clock too that was Dreyer-ish. This just seemed like a step back for Reygadas, while he was daring visually and thematically in Battle in Heaven, he went for something safe in this one.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 02, 2007 1:10 PM | Permalink

I didn't see the film yet, so I'm merely speculating there, but how could one bless Rohmer's tame classicism and at the same time nitpick with Reygadas' not-enough-daring formalism?
Also I'd like to know what you mean by "anti-Dumont film"?

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Oct 04, 2007 4:26 PM | Permalink

Hey Harry, do you mean with respect to Rohmer's new film? I haven't seen it, so maybe you're confusing me with someone else? I actually don't have a quarrel with Reygadas's formalism, it's the "where is he going with this?" that had me puzzled. If it's the idea that "miracles happen everyday", it seems a bit facile for someone of his caliber.

And by anti-Dumont remark, I was basically drawing on Dumont's Q&A's for his last two films where he talks about how he uses cycles to represent good/evil in its most elemental state. They're almost interchangeable in his more abstract, philosophical approach. Reygadas also draws on cycles in Silent Light (there's the harvesting, the diurnal cycle, the seasons), but he certainly doesn't see them as interchangeable, he sees them from a humanist perspective.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 04, 2007 9:34 PM | Permalink

Curiously, at the Q&A after a screening at NYFF, Reygadas said that while the film has an obvious connection to Ordet, he feels it may be closer to Sleeping Beauty because Ordet, from beginning to end, is about the miracle, but in Silent Light the miracle is incidental (he says). It's just an exit from the triangle.

Posted by: davis on Oct 05, 2007 8:35 AM | Permalink

Rob, that's a great point. Reygadas didn't have a press screening Q&A, so because of the obvious Ordet parallels, people were expecting that miracle, and see the rest of the film as a lead-up to it, rather than the observations around it.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 05, 2007 5:18 PM | Permalink

Yeah, I think it makes the miracle more of a metaphor (and the death too, for that matter), rather than an actual event and catalyst for change as it is in Ordet. I myself was watching for the kiss, like the one Inger gives Mikkel at the end of Ordet, which seems to me the central image of that film, the point when Mikkel regains his faith because he witnessed -- actually touched, felt, experienced -- a miracle and the point when Inger rediscovers the value of the flesh, it having been pulled away from her unexpectedly. That's a sensuous kiss, a clawing at the earth, if ever I've seen one.

But things don't quite happen like that in Silent Light, where one character bestows on the other a kiss (and a tear), grants a wish, recedes from the picture, having received her inspiration by blocking the sun with her hand, while the receiver slips back into the land of the living without obvious change. I think Reygadas has made an essentially secular story within the mold of spiritual cinema, which is quite interesting.

I'm still wrestling with the film, and I'm not sure if it's a step forward or a lateral move for Reygadas, but he's clearly talented, serious, precise, and methodical. He's still very careful about perspective. And his next film is a must-see for me, whatever it is.

Posted by: davis on Oct 05, 2007 10:39 PM | Permalink

That's a great distinction, I'd forgotten about the sun-blocking scene that just preceded it. Exactly, I don't dislike the film at all. On the contrary, I just thought it was a little "safe", but that's true also. Anything framed within spiritual cinema has that signature "safeness" to it, and maybe that's point. Is it no less a miracle just because there is no big Statement of faith to reinforce it/fall back on?

...And I'm with you on his next film. I'm definitely curious to see what "other Mexico" he comes up with next.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 06, 2007 7:35 AM | Permalink

Yes I meant Astrée, but I was talking about the praise in general. I don't understand why when Rohmer is tame it's genius, but when someone else is it's a weakness...
And I haven't seen 29 Palms, so I still don't know what you mean. Now I have to see the films. And I can expect a "miracle" at the end of the movie apparently.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Oct 06, 2007 7:44 AM | Permalink

Ah yes, but the miracle is incidental, no the film itself. Actually, Flanders also works as point of comparison with respect to the seasonality of pastoral life, not just Twentynine Palms.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 07, 2007 1:15 AM | Permalink

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