The screen opens on the night sky, the stars glowing (not twinkling, mind you, but crisp and sharp and dense as seen from the clarity of a desert, with no city lights or urban pollution to muddy the view). The sounds of night are the only soundtrack, hyper-attentive to the natural world of insects. The starfield suddenly starts to bend and warp as the screen spirals and the camera readjusts. It’s only when the orange and green of dawn begins to overpower the black sky and drown out the stars and dark shadows of silhouettes are slowly revealed that we realize it is the horizon. It’s like watching the world being born in front of our eyes, with the sounds of farm animals waking to the dawn and the Earth rousing from slumber taking over the soundtrack. The camera silently tracks in to the scene, creeping so slowly it’s almost imperceptible but for the shifting perspective.
I can’t recall ever seeing such a vision of dawn as the birth of a new day, of the turning of the Earth as a literal rebirth of life, in a film, let alone in the defining first images. Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas’ third feature, is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, an insular pocket of agrarian people that feels almost like a portal to old Europe within modern Mexico. This is not some Luddite culture â€“ Johan (Cornelio Wall), the gentle patriarch of the farm family we meet over silent prayer and bustling breakfast, drives a sturdy new pickup and harvests the fields with combines and he joins his children to watch a DVD in a portable TV in a van â€“ but these people hold close to their values, their religion and their way of life. Reygadas’ measured pace and the reflective observation of his patient camera is in tune with the movement of seasons and the cycle of crops, rather than the rush of urban life carved up into deadlines. It’s also in tune with the austerity of their surroundings and the quality of their spiritual lives. They are not a simple people, which sounds more like an insult than a description, but a community of people who seem to take the time to experience every moment, whether it is silent prayer over the breakfast table or a family bath in an outdoor pool.
But all outward appearances aside, they are not a dour people. Johan jokes with his friend, Zacarias (Jacobo Klassen), before they engage in the topic that has Johan so emotionally torn up: he’s not only in love with another woman, they have been engaging in an affair. He grapples with his attraction, tries to discover if it is a transient feeling (God and sin and temptation are not brought up) or if it is pure emotion and God is trying to tell him something. “I simply made a mistake with Esther,” he explains to his father, who is also a pastor and, in the course of reminding him of his responsibility to his wife, talks of his own past temptations and doubts with his marriage many years ago. There is no judgment, no talk of sin or hell, just a serious adult discussion of both personal and moral duty that turns on a central question: if God is love, then is this love holy? Regardless, his affair carries very human consequences.
Silent Light is told with the same powerful simplicity and stylistic austerity as Reygadas’ previous films, JapÃ³n and Battle in Heaven, but without the shock of explicit sexual or violent imagery, scenes that seemed designed to provoke our comfort level. His portrait of these dedicated yet vulnerable folks is just as intense and even more compassionate and there is an emotional purity and human weakness to their struggles. And while it’s been said in many previous reviews, the film’s connection to Carl Th. Dreyer’s Ordet, from the formal composition and mise-en-scene of key shots to the extraordinarily powerful theme of redemption, forgiveness and rebirth, is too direct not to acknowledge and embrace.
Silent Light is entrancing, powerful, pure, a work of cinema art sheered to the essentials and a work of spiritual exploration and identity where religion and faith are never directly discussed but are behind every conversation. Reygadas isn’t preaching, he’s telling a human story framed by their beliefs and their commitment to their faith and family. In that space between the mortal and the spiritual, miracles occur.
Silent Light plays at Northwest Film Forum through April 9, 2009.