-MONTHLY FILM & TV REVIEW-
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
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.