Unarguably one of the world’s most demanding “ascetist” auteurs, and certainly North America’s most dedicated “art film” provocateur, Carlos Reygadas makes movies that slow your heart rate and raise your anxiety levels at the same time. His observational gaze isn’t just patient rigor, but a brand of glacial, creepy stillness, chilled further by occasional moments of graphic sex, slow exploratory camera moves that seem to perform the impossible, and a colossal sense of unspoken crisis. “Japón” (2002), “Battle in Heaven” (2005) and “Silent Light” (2007) are, most of all, living mysteries, existing scene by scene several left steps away from their own “real” stories, filled with spooky signs of cosmic ruin, and focused on guilt so epic it threatens to crack the sky.
Reygadas hasn’t found much of an audience in the U.S. yet, and “Silent Light” didn’t help win him one — after the dismaying scald of his previous movie, the filmmaker decided to essentially remake Carl Dreyer’s “Ordet,” after a fashion, trumping Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” by several short hairs, and staying in Mexico via the country’s extant Mennonite communities in the north, which makes “Silent Light” the first film ever made in Plautdietsch, or Dutch-inflected Low Prussian.
Reygadas’ strategy remains the same: employ non-pro locals (or in this case, Mennonites from Canada and Germany as well as Mexico) more or less playing themselves, gaze upon the landscape as if it were Mars, and use the waiting time in long shots like a cudgel. The set-up is simple for us, but for Mennonites (or so the film implies), it could portend the end of the world: a farmer and father of six is tortured by a long-standing adulterous affair with an otherwise virtuous neighbor, who’s also plagued with shame. The farmer’s wife knows about it, and is equally riven with anxiety (though the “actors” can only sporadically acknowledge their feelings; they look at each other as if their heads are about to explode), and the sense pervades that it is not just a trivial human triangle of misery, but either the act of God or of Satan or, the worst-case scenario, of individual devout man in a Godless world.
As unlikely as it may seem, Reygadas’ story becomes gripping, and the moral questions at hand are more complex than they seem — indications of blessedness and divinity are everywhere, but the structures of hyper-Protestantism can be seen as both suffocating and bucolic. (The hero’s six children are gorgeous, serene and well-behaved, even if they have to bathe in a stream with their clothes on.) But in the end, it’s hardly a spiritual film – faith is a hindrance, and, it seems, simple human empathy is the stronger force.
Some critics have taken Reygadas for an opportunistic stunt-worker, co-opting the in-vogue festival film syntax of enigmatic realism, while sensationally getting his non-pro casts to do things they’re not supposed to do – in “Silent Light,” he undresses Mennonites and puts them in all manner of compromising extramarital positions. Or so you’d think, if you expect the sect’s members to behave as if it were the 18th century, which is only a cliché.
In any case, we can only regard Reygadas coercive if we were present during the shoot, and the only difference I see between calling him an artist and calling him an adept charlatan is in your own cynicism. The same goes for comedies and horror films, Godard and Antonioni: you either give yourself over to it and its experiential power as cinema, or you don’t.
But it’s “Silent Light”‘s visual personality that’s as fascinating as an Arctic ice crystal, gorgeous and unforgiving and intimidating, and the filmmaker routinely hunts down disarming moments – the youngest daughter swimming languidly up to the camera and staring right into it, the bewildering sequence in which the hero consults with his real aging father on a farm suddenly blanketed in snow (!), the funeral wake seen through a window so the figures are outlined Magritte reflections of a sunlit cornfield, the fearsome rainstorm that falls upon the characters driving down the highway as if it were a curse. Throughout, the sky glowers with threats on the horizon while the foreground is electrified by sun. The film opens and closes with beginning-to-end dolly portraits of sunrise and sunset, somehow unmanipulated by time lapse. When the miracle arrives, you can actually see the blood return to the cheeks.