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To Be Human

To Be Human (photo)

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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.

09082009_SilentLight.jpgIn 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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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