Posted February 4, 2009 by William Dunmyer in malick

Silent Light — Reminiscent of Malick

“Silent Light,” the Mexican film by relative newcomer Carlos Reygadas, has caused a stir in the New York art-house scene this winter. I am happy that it has garnered some attention. This is hard to do for a film that never found a U.S. distributor with an ad budget. Tony Scott at the New York Times is particularly responsible for spreading the word about “Silent Light.” Many thanks to him.

The film is a mixed bag, however. It has some wondrous aspects, but its glacial slowness is at times an ordeal to experience, particularly in the second half. This forced me to bring down the film’s rating substantially. But rest assured, there are some masterpiece moments in this extraordinary film.

Reygadas pays tribute to Terrence Malick by focusing much attention on the earth that surrounds the film’s characters. Just like in Malick’s films, the clouds and mountains that form the backdrop are as much a part of the movie as the characters. The sounds of the earth also play a major role. You have never heard the sound of farm animals and insects such as you will hear in “Silent Light,” which takes place on a Mennonite farm in Mexico. (Mennonites are like the Amish but less strict. They drive cars, for example. But they lead very rustic, simple lives.)

I do not know the story of how the film got made, but it appears that Reygadas found a Mennonite settlement in his country and somehow worked his way into that community, getting to know the people and their unique customs. Given the huge cultural differences and the language barrier (the Mennonite language is not identified, but it sounds like Dutch), this is a remarkable achievement in itself.

Reygadas must have then written the film and gotten it translated into Dutch — another achievement. It gets even better. He somehow persuaded the Mennonites themselves to act in the film. They by and large do a wonderful job. Occasionally one of the extras will accidentally look at the camera, and the fourth wall will be broken. Reygadas surprisingly kept some of these shots in the final cut. I love that he made this decision.

The standard interpretation of this would be that Reygadas wanted to introduce an element of postmodern self-consciousness; that is, draw the audience’s attention to the staged aspect of cinema. Expose the technology of cinema and make that technology become an aspect of what the film is examining.But Reygadas does not come across as a postmodern ideologue. He’s more of a naturalist. When a child accidentally looks at a camera during filming, there is a look of amazement that passes across his face. He is fascinated by the camera. That wonder that he shows is more true and more human than any staged scene with a child could ever be. Reygadas seems to love real life so much, including the real wonderment of children, that he couldn’t cut out of the film a scene where something so beautiful and real burst to life on the screen for a second.

Reygadas spends a lot of time drinking in the amazing sights and sounds of this community. The opening sequence, for example, is of a large family silently eating breakfast together. I found this scene oddly gripping. Later that same family takes a dip in a nearby stream, and Reygadas’s camera captures it all in a sublime way. The photography of the children is particularly awe-inspiring.

But there is a plot, a quite modern one. The father of this large family has begun having an affair with another woman. He has been upfront with his wife, so there are no secrets. But that certainly doesn’t make it any easier. The adulterers are racked with guilt, and the wife is consumed with grief. Watching the Mennonites experience extreme emotions and modern issues in the middle of a rustic culture that feels more like the 16th century than the 21st makes for a unique drama.


William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.