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Silent Light
cast: Cornelio Wall, Maria Pankratz, Miriam Toews, Peter Wall, and Jacobo Klassen

director: Carlos Reygadas

136 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Silent Light (aka: Stellet Licht in Plautdietsch, the German patois the film is made in) is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico. It won the jury prize at the 2007 Cannes film festival, it was number six in Sight & Sound magazine's list of the best films of 2007, and it has also won five other awards from various illustrious film festivals around the globe. Quite how it managed to do this is beyond my comprehension for, while the film is beautifully shot, it really does not have anything of interest to say.

The film revolves around Johan (Cornelio Wall), a farmer in an isolated community who spends most of his time tending his fields with the help of his children and his wife Esther (Miriam Toews). However, despite his low-tech religious lifestyle, he has found the time to carry out an affair with Marianne (Maria Pankratz) and he now finds himself trapped between the respect he has for his wife and the lust and genuine love he feels for his mistress.

Carlos Reygados is one of those directors fond of the long take, the awkward silence and the shots of countryside. Indeed, Silent Light opens with a long take of the sun rising above the Mexican landscape. Slowly it creeps ever onwards, replacing the darkness with ever thinning shallows, and then a landscape of oranges and reds turns to greens and blues. Predictably, the film ends with this process in reverse as we move from evening to twilight to pitch black to starlit sky. Clearly, this is meant to remind us of our place in the universe and point out that while the universe keeps moving forward regardless of our problems, it is still full of important, life altering, beautiful and terrible moments. The film's entire cinematography speaks of this humanistic and vaguely spiritual vision of the world as every single shot in the film features perfectly focussed fore-grounded humans with astonishingly beautiful backdrops trailing off into the distance behind them.

I see the world as inherently not only absurd and meaningless but also indifferent to the point of hostility. We spend our lives trying to create meanings for ourselves but these are ultimately fruitless in the grand scheme of things. Because I have this vision of the world, I was utterly unmoved by Alexis Zabe's admittedly beautiful cinematography that screams of the significance not only of every moment but also of every blade of grass and sunset. Indeed, if you are not the "sometimes there's so much beauty in the world..." type then I predict that you will find this film dull and overly long as the director and cinematographer are desperately trying to push buttons that you do not have and, because none of these themes are directly addressed in the film, they require quite a bit of critical unpacking further dulling the impact for viewers that are not of the same mindset of the director.

Setting aside the efficacy of such cinematic techniques, there is also a question as to their originality. Indeed, one scene features Johan walking through a field full of knee-high grass and flowers and its resemblance to similar scenes in the work of Terrence Malick who used very similar imagery in both The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World, both of which had considerably more to say than Silent Light. The use of long takes and amateur actors is also reminiscent of Rene Allio's I, Pierre Rivière..., and its documentary follow-up Back To Normandy. However, in truth these techniques are fairly standard tools for art house directors and reflect the fondness for humanistic themes that is present in a lot of that kind of cinema. Zabe and Reygados use these tricks very well and Silent Light is undeniably a beautiful film but artistically speaking this is really not something worth writing home about.

Moving on from the cinematographic aspects, Silent Light is a film about betrayal and forgiveness and well as the role of duty, respect and lust in love. Johan is having an affair with Marianne and he is not too skilled at hiding it. People turn up at the door and call for him (as the Mennonites have no telephones), he tells seemingly everyone about it and he moves bizarrely between despair and childish elation as he comes to terms with his decision to take up with Marianne, eventually settling on a ridiculous justification whereby he would have chosen Marianne had he met her at the same time as Esther (thereby ruling out the 15-20 years of marriage he shared with Esther). By the time Esther falls ill and confronts him about his treatment of her, his heart has hardened against her and, when she dies (literally of a broken heart) she refuses to be near him, preferring instead to die alone in a field.

A surreal scene in which Marianne seemingly reanimates Esther with a kiss, allowing her to say goodbye to her children and express pity for poor Johan who had to carry out an affair because he was in love, then allays the guilt that Johan might feel at the propitious death of his wife. Though the scene is shot in such a way as to suggest that the lines between dream and reality have been blurred, it is pretty clear that we are in Johan's fantasy because of the stopped clock above the door to where the body is kept.

All of this sounds quite interesting and, to a certain extent it is. The actors put in the kind of fine, low-key performances that you would expect from amateurs with none of them standing out as particularly interesting or nuanced in his performance. However, at 137 minutes, the film feels insanely sedate. Playing out such a modest and unassuming little story across more than two hours of film feels hopelessly self-indulgent and unnecessary. The long takes are supposed to invite you to think about what's going on but, in truth, the ideas in the film are so pedestrian that the more pressing invitation is the one to press fast-forward on your DVD player.

The DVD comes with some deleted scenes of little interest and a rather pretentious and over-edited interview with the somewhat dull Cornelio Wall.
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