Silent Light Review
The third film from Carlos Reygadas is thematically so close to his two previous films that undoubtedly the three films will be regarded as a trilogy that explore man’s troubled attempts to reconcile themselves with their spirituality and their environment. At least, one hopes that Silent Light in some way draws a line under the opening phase of the director’s career, because while Reygadas’s own personal stamp and talent is still quite evident in his latest film, his reliance on the transcendental techniques of cinema greatest directors, and in particular here his referencing of Carl Th. Dreyer’s Ordet, is beginning to overwhelm any individual voice or expression.
The third film in this loose trilogy sees another man bearing the terrible burden of his guilt alone – guilt over a sin that, as a religious and loving family man, threatens to tear apart everything he believes in. In the director’s two previous films, the torment their protagonists were undergoing and their search for meaning was described brilliantly in their environment – in the isolation and desolation of the Mexican countryside of Japón, and in the hell-on-earth depiction of Mexico City in Battle In Heaven. Silent Light is no different, the film taking a full five minutes to show the night sky of northern Mexico gradually give way to the dawning of a new day over the inhabitants of a small isolated and deeply religious farming community (already similar to the opening of Ordet), establishing a connection between them and the simple, but awe-inspiring environment in which they live.
The simple beauty and truth of living in the world God has created for them however is called into question by Johan (Cornelio Wall). A member of the Mennonite community, Johan is married to Esther (Miriam Toews) and has six young children, but he has been having an affair with Marianne (Maria Pankratz) for two years, finding in her a soul mate, an undeniable true love that he cannot draw back from, no matter how much guilt and torment it causes this devoutly religious man. The affair is no secret to his wife Esther - Johan could not keep such a matter from her - but his openness and honesty about his feelings, admitting it to friends and even to his father, a preacher, doesn’t ease his conscience or provide him with the answers he needs. He knows the unhappiness that he is causing, and wants to find a way to make the matter right, but doesn’t know how to do it without causing pain to himself and those close to him.
Unlike the solitary men with similar troubled consciences in Japón and Battle In Heaven, there is no redemption to be sought and found this time in a deep physical and sexual communion with another person. Johan already found that with Marianne, but he is unable to reconcile the feelings it inspires in him with who believes he is. While he should consider himself blessed to have found such a deep and true love, it comes at a cost, risking the destruction of everything he believes in. Seeking to express such inner torment Reygadas draws back on the stylistic touches that mark his previous films, and although the trademark 360º pans are still there, as is the expansive widescreen cinematography on anamorphic lenses, the technique is in line with the subject and austerity of the lives of the characters, most notably in the lack of a music score for the film. The use of long takes depicting simple events such as the children bathing and the community working on the land, is wonderful, depicting the simplicity, the truth and the beauty of the life that Johan is in danger of destroying, Reygadas finding both symbolical and lyrical meaning in the falling of a leaf or the flight of a butterfly.
With an explicit and transcendental sex scene being inappropriate in this context however, Reygadas has to find another means of expressing the point of crisis and discovery of a path towards redemption, and bafflingly the Mexican director can find no other way of doing so than turning to the third act of Dreyer’s Ordet. Too obvious to be plagiarism, it’s not so much the appropriation of such a powerful piece of cinema that is bewildering here, as much as the failure of Reygadas to achieve even a fraction of the power and meaning that Dreyer drew from the scene. That could just be down to the jarring effect of such an obvious reference intrude into the film, as I imagine that the ending could potentially be a moving and breathtakingly daring climax to anyone who has not seen Dreyer’s masterpiece. But for anyone who has seen Ordet, the appropriation and deliberation with which it is done is so obvious that it becomes a distraction, taking the viewer out of the film and betraying the carefully lyrical work that has gone on before by giving the impression that in Silent Light Reygadas is more concerned with paying homage to the awesome power of cinema that he is with the humanity of his characters and their situation.
Silent Light is released in the UK by Tartan. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is not region encoded.
Silent Light is obviously the kind of film that is going to achieve a greater impact the larger the screen, and this transfer should do it justice about as far as a Standard Definition transfer can. Presented anamorphically at the film’s full 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the progressive image is perfectly stable and shows no macroblocking issues. Colouration, tone, sharpness, detail and texture are all well defined. Only a little edge-enhancement might be noticeable depending on equipment and one’s sensitivity to it. Otherwise, the transfer is most impressive and just about perfect.
There is a full choice of soundtrack options – Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. The surround options obviously achieve better the intended tone of the film which is heavily reliant on the use of silence and natural sounds. As such it’s debatable whether the DTS track noticeably brings out any more subtleties than the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, but either of these options will certainly do the job. Whether it’s down post-sync dubbing I don’t know, but there appeared to be some lip-sync issues for a long period around the middle of the film, and it happens with each of the mixes. Some sounds being fractionally out of time with movements and most evidently in the TV sequence with Jacques Brel however suggest that it may be an issue with the transfer. In a film with little dialogue, any such issues are minor, particularly when the failure of synchronisation is only partial and fractional.
The majority of the dialogue in the film is spoken in the Pladtdietsch language of the Mennonite community of North Mexico, with occasional lines of Spanish. The subtitles are clear, in a white font and are optional.
A long Making of... (35:50) is included in the extra features. It gives a good indication of how the director worked with the non-professional actors and prepared scenes, but it does tend to ruin the impact of several powerful sequences in the film when you see lighting rigs being assembled and guys standing with hoses to create a rainstorm. There are brief interviews with some members of the cast, but Reygadas himself offers no thoughts or commentary on the process. A handful of Deleted Scenes (6:49) are shown anamorphically, but are windowboxed. Made up of extended or linking shots between scenes, they don’t add anything to the film, but are attractively shot. In a brief Interview (7:28) before the film’s first showing at Cannes, Cornelio Wall talks bout his own background as a farmer and radio DJ and his feelings about the film. In the conspicuous absence of any commentary or interview with Reygadas, Jason Woods’ Film Notes included as an insert provide some insight into the director’s intentions and methods while working on Silent Light.
Carlos Reygadas’s talent is beyond question, as is his ability to harness powerful, striking imagery and scenery in the service of expressing the deepest emotional and spiritual challenges facing individuals, but while that area has been well marked out with the personal visions of Tarkovsky, Bergman, Dreyer, Bresson and Antonioni among others, I don’t think we have yet seen Reygadas demonstrate a distinctive voice of his own. Silent Light, more than Japón or Battle In Heaven, shows the debt owed by the director to the work of one of the masters, drawing heavily in mood, content and imagery to Ordet without achieving a fraction of the magnificence of Dreyer’s masterpiece, or even having a convincing reason for such obvious referencing. Barring a few minor but niggling issues, Tartan’s impressive transfer is largely true to the film’s intended look and feel.