Silent Light (Stellet Licht) is set in a Mennonite community in Chihuahua, Mexico. Johan, a husband and father, is trying to end an affair. Truthful with his wife Esther from the beginning, he still feels the other woman, Marianne, is the person he should truly be with.
Richly complex yet spare at all levels, Carlos Reygadas (Japon, Battle in Heaven) has made an opalescent wonder of a film, reminiscent of Last Life in the Universe (Japan 2003), Songs From the Second Floor (Sweden 2000) and the films of Terence Malick in that you want to absorb completely each masterful, painterly scene. The story is one of serenely tangled hearts.
Reygadas has an immaculate compositional sense. The film opens with dawn breaking. Starlight fades, and as the sun comes up, the camera gradually moves across the hills and drinks in the perfection of the changing light. The entire film is slowly paced, but not sluggish. We’re given time to bask in static shots of the landscape that reminds you of an Andrew Wyeth egg tempera. The motion of a moving pickup truck, the view through the windshield, a cloud of dust that draws the eye away and back. More like a finely choreographed dance than driving a dirt road through farmland.
Dialogue is terse yet beset with meaning and heartbreak and is paired with action that wraps more layers of meaning in each scene and maintains clarity. The family is swimming in the languid water of a cistern fringed with lustrous green grass. As they shampoo their children’s hair, Johan offers a compliment to Esther. It’s meant with sincerity, respect, contrition for his errors and possibly a remnant of his love for her from long ago. There are tears. But it’s in Miriam Toews‘s (a Canadian writer playing Esther) level gaze back at Johan that reveals he’s only opened wounds wider. A remark meant in affection cruelly cuts both parties. Marianne is told it’s time to close the door to a van where Johan and his children sit. The camera is Marianne’s POV. You don’t see her, or her reaction. The camera lingers on the door long enough for sadness to descend, or what the audience feels as sadness. She’s closed off from Johan, his family and her life as it could have been or now will be. Then she walks away in long shot, but not how you would expect. Not slumped in penitence, but also not unapologetic. She just walks back to work. Back to living. Even the film’s ending could be seen as deliberately abstruse in the hands of a lesser filmmaker but I found it fitting, rapt and lucid.
Reygadas offers no real explanation of the Mennonite faith but he’s eminently respectful in portraying these people and you truly feel a part of their lives. He has a sure hand with his actors who are non actors. Everyday people speaking of profound matters. A stiffness to their words but also a lyricism.
And at no time are their eyes on heaven. Their eyes are fixed firmly on each other. The burden of heaven and life is in every moment. They know where heaven is. There’s no need to look up. – [DVD]
DVD Release Date: 9/8/09