Silent Light (aka Stellet Licht) (2009) dir. Carlos Reygadas
Starring: Cornelio Wall, Maria Pankratz, Miriam Toews
By Alan Bacchus
The magnificent opening shot sets the pace for Carlos Reygadas’ Cannes Jury Prize Winner ‘Stellet Licht’. The opening shot which starts on a blanket of stars and then conspicuously time lapses into a sunrise framed against a pastoral landscape view of the film’s setting, takes a full 5mins to enlighten us to the stillness of time in which the film’s small Mennonite community takes place.
At 146 mins, which in terms of actual screen content and story is really a 90mins film stretched by lengthy long takes such as these, will test the patience of even the most ardent art house cinephiles. But in the right viewing conditions – that is, a real movie theatre, or at least a darkened TV room with a big screen and without distractions – Reygadas delivers a rapturously bold, beautiful and spiritual cinematic experience.
Some background context on the story is needed to understand that the film takes place in a Mexican Mennonite community. The characters, who are white, speak a peculiar European/Germanic language and live in a geographic instinct village, very little evidence of Mexico at all. Johan (Cornelio Wall) is the patriarch of a large farming family. The daily chores split up in a fashion likely traditional over hundreds of years. Reygadas’ holds his shots of Johan moving about his environment in no hurry to get to the next shot. His allows more than enough breathing room for us to feel Johan’s daily pattern.
While Johan is stoic and controlled on the outside, internally his emotions are a rollercoaster. He’s already deep into a relationship another woman, Marianne – another local farmer. We receive this information in a unique revelation from Johan. Unlike every other affair we seen in the movies, Johan confesses to his father with an alarming matter-of-fact yet distressed attitude. In fact there’s no sneaking around for Johan who, from the beginning, has been up front and frank with his wife about his feelings – an effect which disarms us from hating Johan. This conflict of feelings which is rarely if ever expressed outwardly torment Johan
For his wife it’s even more. She too holds her poker face, revealing none of her own inner rage and resentment. It isn’t until an astounding emotional climax under a tree in heavy rain do we see and feel the effect of Johan’s infidelity.
Alexis Zabe’s strikingly handsome and formal cinematography is dripping with texture. The tone he achieves from his dusty-coloured and sparsely decorated compositions reminds us of Nestor Almendros’ seminal work in ‘Days of Heaven’. There’s even a distinct 70’s feel from his glorious anamorphic cinemascope camera process. Zabe admirably directs our attention by shifting his focus around his frames. In the case of the close-ups his focus is sometimes so shallow Johan’s nose, or chin, or even eyebrows might be out of focus.
We’re also reminded of Michael Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’ – a similarly paced and stoically shot mood piece about a small community dealing with events, and emotions foreign to them. As some of you might know, I wasn’t enraptured with White Ribbon as most other people were, and while Haneke’s vision seemed purposely to pull the rug from under us at the moment we expect a climax, in ‘Silent Light’, however pedantic, there’s a profound and thoroughly satisfying payoff at the end of his slow-burning wick.