DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews

 
SILENT LIGHT (STELLET LICHT) (director/writer: Carlos Reygadas; cinematographer: Alexis Zabe; editor: Natalia López; cast: Cornelio Wall Fehr (Johan), Miriam Toews (Esther), Maria Pankratz (Marianne), Jacobo Klassen (Zacarias), Peter Wall (Padre), Elizabeth Fehr (Madre); Runtime: 136; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Carlos Reygadas/Jaime Romandia; Palisades Tartan Video; 2007-Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany-in Plautdietsch with English subtitles)

"It's told with Dreyer-like conviction."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz 

Thirty-something Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas ("Japon"/"Battle in Heaven") directs this astonishing contemplative arthouse film on a Mennonite family, speaking in the German/Old Dutch derivative medieval language of Plautdietsch, living a simple and austere life in northern Mexico, where adultery leads to tragic results. It's told with Dreyer-like conviction, like in his Ordet (1955), but with Reygadas's sensuous flavorings and odd humanistic touches the religious community seems less severe. The film-maker uses Mennonite non-professional actors who have no problem eating, bathing, getting giddy over watching a Jacques Brel program on TV and acting sad for the camera, as they keep things looking realistic and natural as if these Mennonites were born to act.

Auteur Reygadas loves long-takes of fixed shots and slow zooms into close-ups, making it the kind of non-action film that should not easily attract a mainstream audience. The film's memorable opening shot captures in a drawn-out wide-screen long-take the beautiful sky at the crack of dawn on a seemingly idyllic Mennonite farm, giving us the impression we've landed in an earthly paradise and are no longer in the real world. It also closes with a fascinating shot of the night sky, on the God-fearing Mennonite community, after depicting a miracle of divine intervention to avow that there is a God.

Devout paunchy rural farmer Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) and his equally taciturn slender wife Esther (Miriam Toews) are good people, who raise according to their Mennonite faith their six sweet children in a rural northern Mexico community of Mennonites. Johan is a tortured soul who can't resist having an affair with an unmarried Mennonite woman named Marianne (Maria Pankratz), even though he knows it's a sin according to God and man's laws and is bound to cause big problems if not stopped. The farmer confesses to his wife about the affair, tells his mechanic best friend Zacarias (Jacobo Klassen) and tells his preacher dad (Peter Wall) he prefers the new woman. The friend tells him she's ‘the woman nature meant for you,’ while dad encourages him to get a grip on himself and remain with his loving wife, and his hurt wife cries over being forsaken.

Silent Light sets a hypnotic mood as we take in the family routines and watch the family pray together and the men hold conversations at the sun-baked field during the summer harvest or at the inexplicable snowy field after a rare winter snow. It prudently shows the lovers in their tender sexual encounter by focusing on their facial expressions of ecstasy rather than using graphically explicit sex shots, so we see how moved they are about each other and that neither is a monster. The couple both feel as Marianne candidly says she does, that ‘it's the saddest time of my life – but also the best.’ Johan comes off as a self-indulgent weak-willed guy, who can't live with himself for being such a hypocrite but is not strong enough to suppress his unholy desires. Johan is willing to live feeling sorry for himself without changing, even when knowing his lustful actions harm mostly the two women he really cares about. In a film that very well might be more about matters of the heart than of religion, Reygadas shows the pains of letting go can be devastating no matter how devout a person is in their practice. Reygadas has created a provocative, mostly impossible to penetrate, visually stunning film, one that is all the more remarkable for being so enigmatic and far-fetched.

REVIEWED ON 6/25/2012       GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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