Thursday, February 12, 2009
Silent Light (Stellet Licht)
I am loath to post a companion picture for this review because I feel as though there's no way this image or any other image from the movie could really communicate what it's about, or its strange, intense yet sorrowful mood that pulses through its two and a half hour run-time. It's a film to be experienced on the big screen.
Stellet Licht is the story of a Mennonite Community, where Johan, a married man with several children, has fallen in love with another woman, Marianne. Johan sees Marianne has his "natural woman," or, the woman that God intends him to be with. He has been honest with his wife, Esther, about the affair from its genesis, but isn't sure what to do. His religion commands that he should remain faithful to his wife, but Marianne seems like the woman for him.
This is the plot of many movies, albeit without the religious undertones, but Carlos Reygadas, the director, has made a wholly original film. For one, he employs actual Menonnite actors, and even non-actors in the film (most of the actors who play Johan's children, are, in fact, related) and the extras that appear in the film are in fact from a Menonnite community. They speak a rare dialect of German called Plattdeutsch, which adds further exoticism and lyricism to a film already brimming with nuance. In a way, with the language barrier, and Reygadas' insistence that we really LOOK at the images he's presented, Silent Light is more like watching a ballet than a film.
And what do I mean by "Reygadas' insistence that we really LOOK"? Well, the film begins with a sunrise, from pitch dark to mid-morning. He focuses on every face, every moment, with such dedication that, as a audience-member, I was literally uncomfortable with the prying gaze of the camera. With simple dialogue and little plot, Silent Light is a compendium of moving time and a tribute to the landscape of Northern Mexico, where it was filmed. It's no wonder that in the midst of these open spaces, Johan clings to Marianne, as if tangible solace (the physical sort) is the only thing that might offer a reprive from the accomplishments of God. And that's what Johan's world is: an accomplishment of God.
And in religion, there is punishment for dark acts. Not much happens in this film, but when it does, Reygadas takes it to the next level. Like Hawthorne, in The Scarlet Letter, the unclean actions eventually come to define an entire person, as if the sin were ordered from God himself. But before I get too preachy I will simply say that the film's title is undeniably a nod to the mysteries of life, and the existence of a higher power. It's stillness is comforting, and its intensity rivals that of Herzog's Aquirre the Wrath of God . . . but with none of its malice.
Silent Light is a difficult film to watch. You will squirm, you will be tired, but most importantly you will be entranced by its subtle filmmaking. The movie will stick to you. And in the end, the beauty Reygadas is able to capture seems to suggest that there may be a purpose to life's most mundane plots.