Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas’ third film is an unmistakably serious work, emblematic of the kind of brooding, large-canvas filmmaking which has become a rarity even at Cannes, where Silent Light won the Jury Prize in 2007. Reygadas endured much hectoring for the brash sex scenes in his second feature, Battle in Heaven, though one that it was the director’s unfashionable solemnity which accorded the wrath. No respite here. Silent Light unfolds in an isolated Mennonite community in hardscrabble Northern Mexico, a minimalist western landscape which inscribes the film’s slow-winding scenario and inexpressive performances by nonprofessionals with a pantheistic touch of raw, compulsive spirituality.
The more churlish critics cry aestheticism, but Reygadas’s majestic sense of composition and movement transforms a staid melodrama into something more like an unblinking fugue. His use of the little jewels of light produced by shooting into the sun, for instance, is quite unlike any other I’ve ever seen. In one aching shot, they work to dramatize an adulterous embrace; in another they lend a pan symmetry and a familial rift its double-fold.
So then, the plot concerns infidelity, though the characters’ muted exteriors means it takes some time to understand its dimensions. Once the pieces are in place, Reygadas conveys the irreconcilable strife with one shattering landscape after another, traversing the same emotional distance from open prairie to shuttered motel room as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain —though Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet is clearly higher up on Reygadas’s list of influences. In its total, free-floating immersion Silent Light reminded me of nothing so much as Phillip Gröning’s meditative document of the Grand Chartreuse monastery, Into Great Silence, though Gröning’s film had nothing like Reygadas’s bookending shots, two unfathomably elapsed dollies that seem to tear the fabric of space and time—one could do worse for a working definition of cinema at its best.
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