… Holy light
SILENT LIGHT — Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/Holland, 10 (upgraded from 9)
I got really down over the death of Tartan Films and thus the distribution limbo imposed on at least two masterpieces — SILENT LIGHT and YOU, THE LIVING — but there’s cause for rejoicing this week. New York’s Museum of Modern Art began Wednesday a one-week run for SILENT LIGHT. Besides giving me an incentive to care about finishing this essay, much of which has been sitting in my draft folder since FilmFestDC back in May, the MoMA run also makes it eligible for a certain film poll and far more importantly gives filmgoers in at least one US city a chance to see this great film in the only way it should be — in a theater. The New York Times (thanks Manohla Dargis; almost all is forgiven over JUNO) wrote a rapturous review and, according to an exhibitor I know, interest among other distributors in perking up. But if you live in or near New York, you owe it to yourself to see this film; you will not see a better one this year. And perhaps New Yorkers also owe it to the rest of the country to show a distributor that a potential audience does exist for SILENT LIGHT.
Now, no sane person (though Jonathan Rosenbaum has yet to be heard from) is under any illusion that SILENT LIGHT could be another DARK KNIGHT or even a potential LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. And I realize all the critical heavy breathing that follows may not make SILENT LIGHT seem like the most entertaining movie ever. And in a certain sense of “entertaining,” the film obviously isn’t entertaining. It’s definitely slow and meditative, but I do think it does suck you in, partly because the plot is so simple and unadorned (and thus readily accessible), with characters defined as archetypes without being limited to them, but also partly because it’s so drop-dead gorgeous to look at. Director Carlos Reygadas never seems to force anything on us, but somehow everything is there on the surface anyway, so the praise from snooty critics shouldn’t turn people off. SILENT LIGHT is as mesmerizing and hypnotic as a film gets — and I speak as someone myself who isn’t automatically a fan of this sort of “transcendental” film (I’m convinced “Bresson” is French for “boring”). And I was turned on to the film by a Cannes report from Mike D’Angelo, who has similar inclinations, calling himself “the sort of Neanderthal film buff who generally prefers traditional narratives to beatific tone poems.”
Just consider the title for a moment, and its two words — “silent” and “light.” The title tells you it’s a quiet, religious film (rhymes with S—– N—-). Then consider the universal fact of all films — that they unspool and thus only exist in time, a point emphasized in this case by the most obvious fact about the existential experience of watching the film — that SILENT LIGHT is slow. But lastly, SILENT LIGHT’s surface plot is an unapologetically old-fashioned morality tale about an adulterous affair, set in a small religious community of Mennonites in the northern Mexican province of Chihuahua. It basically tells the story of SUNRISE — of a man who strays from his marriage and is brought back by a rainstorm-threat to his wife’s health. (WARNING: There be explicit plot spoilers after the jump, in the context of thematic discussion.)
SILENT LIGHT is about as “unchatty” a film as I’ve ever seen; it’s already several minutes old before the first word is spoken, and not entirely because of the already-famous opening shot (a literal SUNRISE reference?) which I blethered about here. The family says grace before meals three times and the only word ever said is “amen.” Also, the style of the dialogue performance emphasizes the silences between words — the characters in SILENT LIGHT never make small talk, they speak slowly, precisely, never over one another, and not while performing actions. The body language and performance style underlines this “negative” manner — precise, spare and careful, the scene between Johan and his father being a perfect example of this. “Better actors” wouldn’t work in the way that these nonprofessional Mennonite actors do — the sense of performance, of seeing people think before acting — would be absent because professionals are taught (I add “correctly, generally”) that this is bad acting.
Also, consider the scene of the couple driving in the car, which is the traditional “marital quarrel” scene and features the only rain in the film, which becomes a driving rainstorm unto death. And curiously, this scene, as close to a modern confrontation scene as exists, takes place on the only asphalt road in the film. But SILENT LIGHT is a movie about an adulterous triangle that has already begun and of which the wife already knows as the movie begins, so the Dramatic Revelations, the “noise” as it were, are at a minimum. In the car, Johan and Esther never raise their voices, but Esther uses the word “whore” to refer to the other woman Marianne, part of the Mennonite community, not an outsider like The Woman from the City in SUNRISE. “Whore” from that woman in that context weighs heavier than a thousand Oprahesque “Girlfriend…” rants, precisely because of her silence, her irenicism, and the power of things not said.
Silence and sound serve a theological function in the film that goes beyond the film’s merely being situated in a religious community. The style of the little speech there is in SILENT LIGHT is the general style of liturgical language — formal and ritualized. And the subject matter of it mostly concerns weighty matters (if you think the Coens are too chatty about too little, this film is THE antidote). The prayers said are mostly silence — I’ve mentioned the family Graces but also the funeral, where there is a song and little else said. The Church throughout history has emphasized the role of silence and the necessity for it as Prayer 101; not for nothing is the previously-best recent movie about a religious community called INTO GREAT SILENCE.
Obviously every film ever made uses light (it would be a black screen otherwise). But more than almost any film I can recall, light is made obvious and present in SILENT LIGHT. Again, the opening and closing shots, where the director-god shows us his fiat that there will be light creating the world from the dark and formless void that starts the film, and then bringing that drama to an end by returning to darkness — acts of genesis and apocalypse.
But several times during the film, Reygadas does something else: he composes a shot where one segment of the frame is obtrusively more or less illuminated than the rest of the image, or there are radical changes of light quality within the shot as the camera moves through the space. I can’t find a still that illustrates my point, but one example is the early scene at the garage, which begins in the dazzling outdoor sun looking into the opaque building (another is the family’s children inside the van, watching TV as Johan and Marianne return from a sexual encounter). In the former case, as the camera crawls toward the building’s open face, following Johan’s walk only much slower, the camera adjusts as the human iris does and the image inside the open garage door slowly becomes intelligible, revealed to us, unveiled to us. There are numerous other shots where Reygadas’ camera catches sunbeams and he “keeps in” overexposed blemishes within the frame — I’m thinking most specifically of the first meeting we see of Johan and Marianne on top of the hill, where the blemishes and sunbeams make the world seem to sparkle.
Also, look at the still with which I led a review of Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s ORDET a couple of years ago. It’s practically plagiarized in SILENT LIGHT, and in the Reygadas film, the absolute whiteness of the shot is far more blinding in color and calls more attention to itself as whiteness and as pure dazzling light more than even Dreyer’s “glowing-wall” lighting schemes. I specifically remember on first viewing of SILENT LIGHT seeing that blindingly-white shot and saying to myself, “ohmigawd, he’s gonna give us the ORDET ending.” Now to be fair: SILENT LIGHT is not as stylized as ORDET: there’s nothing even approximating Johannes and the overall environment is far more naturalistic, with nature itself being a character (more on that anon), as opposed to the kammerspiel-style claustrophobia of ORDET and GERTRUD (though less so DAY OF WRATH, where an illicit affair is also specifically and there-almost-obtrusively situated in nature). But the ending of the film isn’t the only reference to Dreyer in the film — the performance style that I described above was used by Dreyer in his three final films, and David Bordwell’s landmark (if often annoying) book on Dreyer provided all the techniques the Great Dane uses to make them so slow.
SILENT LIGHT is also “about” one other thing, the other thing all movies have besides sound and light, but which few-to-no movies actually really notice, and that thing is “time.” This movie causes us to notice time more than most, simply because it’s so slowly paced in so many ways, from the frequent silences to the slow manner of people’s speech to Reygadas holding onto shots long after the “drama” is over. One of the film’s earliest shots shows from a long distance a truck turning onto a road that follows the frame’s horizontal axis, and Reygadas holds onto that shot until the truck has completely made the journey to the edge of the frame, even though nothing else happens. It’s a cliche to say that modern life and harrying and traditional life is more slowly-paced, but that is something this film simply oozes without ever having to demonstrate. Reygadas isn’t even concerned with giving us much sense of offscreen time, the time between scenes, sometimes to quite dramatic effect. When Johan speaks to his father to tell him he has decided to leave Esther, the scene starts indoors among milking machines, and then they pull the doors back to go outside and a blinding white light floods in, reflected off the white winter snow. It’s visually shocking but also more a dramatic “unveiling” and also a surprise (we had no sense whatever that months had passed since the previous scene, which took place in bright summer sun.)
But more than that, Time is also quite literally a character in SILENT LIGHT, and one associated with death and decay, and with the result of sin. Church thought has long linked time with the world, with Becoming and seen it as a feature of creation not the creator. St. Augustine said famously near the end of the CONFESSIONS that God exists outside time (and so there was no time before Genesis and will be no time after the Apocalypse). Near the start, when the family leaves and Johan is alone, he goes to the clock on the wall — thankfully the Mennonites use old-fashioned ticking clocks that you can hear (and thus conspicuously not-hear also) — and he stops it. And then he sits down to cry, we don’t at this point of the movie know why. Yes, it’s his bid to stop time but that only underscores the futility of it, since the movie does in fact continue, as does his life and the burden of his sin. When he visits his father’s house, who warns him that the Evil One is lurking after him in his adultery, the ticking clock can be heard throughout the scene. We see the family pendulum one other time and it’s still stopped, but what we see is the reflection is another family dinner — in other words exactly the obligations (i.e., the lives) created by Johan’s earlier actions and which he cannot undo.¹ Repeatedly throughout the movie characters express regret with the status quo with words to the effect of “if I could only turn back time”: Johan telling his father he wishes he hadn’t married Esther so he could now have Marianne, the affair with whom is his attempt to right his past mistake with God; Esther saying to Johan in the car in their one confrontation that she wishes it was a bad dream and she could wake up and it hadn’t all happened; Johan saying at the funeral that he would give anything to turn back time. He’s told “that’s the only thing we cannot do, Johan.” But God can.
Like the late works the easily cited Carl-Theodor Dreyer (not just in ORDET), SILENT LIGHT is a movie filled with silences, where light is made conspicuous, where time is distended. But what Reygadas does that finally makes this movie a masterpiece is that he doesn’t just use silence, light and time as themselves so profusely that the film primarily becomes about silence, light and time, but that religion transcends them. The damage from the affair, as constructed by these things, is undone by the ultimate religious act — a miracle, and one that reverses time. The miracle entails the conquest of the ultimate silence and the ultimate result of time — i.e., the conquest of death. And then the light recedes afterward.
As I wrote last year, SILENT LIGHT’s beginning is a genesis, an act of creation, which would seem to require an apocalypse for an end. The end of SILENT LIGHT is that of course, in the dumbly-literal way that the end of every movie is an apocalypse. But also in the sense that the world is fiated by letting there be light, it ends via its final absence. And I’m also reminded of how the word “apocalypse” has one meaning in current languages (“the end,” more or less) and another meaning in the Greek of the New Testament (“revelation,” or more literally “unveiling”). And “unveiling” is exactly how Reygadas uses light, camera moves and even story itself — the plot points are more noted en passant than made a “point” of, per se. His use of light to unveil includes a cleansing post-sin shower rhymes with the garage scene I mentioned above — moving into and out of a closed space hidden by the darkness. Note also the qualities of the light in the one extended sex scene in the film, how it changes during the scene and how a window is framed. After Marianne has told Johan (talk about archetypal names) that this sex was “goodbye” and their affair must end because “peace is stronger than love,” i.e., her guilty conscience, Johan takes a post-coital look at the the white wall, a motif that later, as I note above, resonates with death, both the death of the affair and death from the reverberations of the affair.
The resurrection of Esther is also paralleled with the very rising of the sun itself in the opening shot (something I didn’t even get until second viewing). Reygadas takes seven minutes on that opening shot because awakenings, whether of the universe or of the dead, are gradual. Esther doesn’t awake suddenly, but starts to twitch her face, twitch her eyes, move her lips and swallow before she actually opens her eyes. On the soundtrack, while this is going on and exactly as nature sounds blended into the opening, they blend in here — the sound of insects now rhyming with the morning cicadas during the movie world’s genesis. And then breathing on the soundtrack, followed by Esther’s first words, “poor Johan,” situating her in the family context as the first cut in the film showed nature as shaped by man. Further, the resurrection here is brought about by an act of love, as are both the creation of the world by God and the creation of a film by a director (a labor of love, as they say.) After Esther has been brought back, Johan’s father goes to the family clock and starts the pendulum, not only restoring the status quo antebellum but also implying that the period of the stopped clock was when we could most see God’s hand at work, i.e., outside time
Even apart from all this, SILENT LIGHT also is at its simplest and most obvious, a sympathetic “look” at this religious Mennonite community, a corner of the world that we don’t see in the movies. Reygadas and the utter authenticity of his actors tells us so much about their community and makes them seem enviable without seeming to. When Johan goes to visit his father he’s cheating on Esther, he tells his father upon being warned of the Evil One to “speak to me as a father, not as a preacher,” and dad gives the obvious answer “I am both.” There is no separation of morals and family here, in a healthy patriarchy. For another example, the sex roles are quite defined, with women sitting on one side of the funeral “service” and men on the other. One detail I found fascinating when the family went out for an outing in a natural pool was that with all the children, the opposite-sex parent washed the hair, while the same-sex parent washed the body. No doubt the feminists in the audience would get conniptions at Reygadas using archetypal tropes like The Other Woman being associated with nature (we first see her on a hilltop, her bare legs trudging through the grass) But as I noted re USPHIZIN (another portrayal of a traditionalist enclave in the contemporary world) and as can even be seen in the Bible itself, the women in traditional patriarchal societies are not patsies and are even the religiously privileged ones. On the former point, Esther is shown operating a combine harvester (the cult of domesticity and “women’s spheres” was the result of urban leisure in early modernity). But more importantly, a woman Marianne is the means for the closing miracle; it’s her kiss which brings Rachel back to life, and it also happens to be the first time we see the two women together (“thank you, Marianne” are the first words she says to the “whore’). And like with Mary Magdelene, the Apostle to the Apostles being the first to see the Risen Lord, the only people SILENT LIGHT actually shows in the same room as Esther are other women — Marianne (who leaves the home right after), and two of the daughters (who hardly have any real sense of what they’ve seen) who are invited to “say hello to mummy” after the men have been shown invited into the room to “say goodbye to mummy.” The younger child announces to the gathered Mennonites that “mummy has awakened,” but is not believed, though she insists that “dad, mum wants to see you” before the camera steps outside and the film ends without our ever seeing the two together.
¹ Well, he could slaughter his whole family, I suppose. But that isn’t really on the radar of this sort of movie, or of most normal people.