On Heaven as it is in Earth
By José Teodoro
Silent Light brings the transcendental metaphysics of Mexican provocateur Carlos Reygadas out into the open
In the opening shot of Silent Light, we begin as if lost in the cosmos and end with our feet on the quotidian ground. Gradually transfigured by the rising sun, the world fills with life, materializing first as crude form, then delicate silhouette, then vast landscape rich with color and texture. Throughout the film, the emphasis is on firmly acknowledging the miraculous within the most ordinary of events, directing our attention not toward the virtuosity of the filmmaker but the splendor to which he bears witness. Yet there’s a sense, conveyed through the initial reeling movement and the subsequent creeping zoom, that the camera is selecting this particular bucolic scene from a vast galaxy of potential subjects. From infinite possibilities filmmaker Carlos Reygadas is making a choice—and the burden of one’s duty to make choices will become central to the film’s drama.
Set entirely within the milieu of a Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonite community in Chihuahua, the narrative core of Silent Light is simplicity itself: a love triangle. Farmer Johan (Cornelio Wall) is married to Esther (Manitoba novelist Miriam Toews). Yet Johan loves another Mennonite woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), and the two of them are in the midst of an affair. With whom should Johan be? The mother of his children and the woman he’s already made a life with, or the woman to whom he feels perhaps spiritually drawn and with whom he shares a love of unprecedented intensity? Should he try to shape his destiny so as to honor the wonder of this overwhelming passion, or, as he proposes to a friend, does “a brave man make destiny with what he’s got?” In keeping with a religious system founded in pacifism, the emotional and moral negotiations are devoid of histrionics. By stripping away all of the usual social conventions inherent to adultery dramas, and by maintaining rigorous indifference toward the finer points of the community’s religious dictates, Reygadas poses these basic questions about love, respect, and responsibility in a manner that’s refreshingly uncluttered and emotionally direct.
By contrast, Battle in Heaven (05) is a labyrinth of metaphors and confrontational imagery punctuated with incongruous sexual matches and cryptic rehearsals of Mexican social, political, and religious rituals. But for his third feature, the director has opted for the path of least intrusion, with his camera hanging back and the mise en scène respectfully bearing witness to the proceedings. Where Battle in Heaven’s camera turns away from a sexual act to perform a leisurely 360-degree pan of the tranquil neighborhood beyond the lovers’ window, pointedly redirecting our gaze from the sensational to the mundane, Silent Light rarely introduces any perspective that doesn’t arise organically from the characters and the natural world surrounding them. Reygadas has coaxed extraordinarily committed, heart-searing performances from a cast of nonprofessionals and gives them the space to let moments of tenderness bloom, conflicts fester, tears well up. The closest he comes to forcing anything is occasionally allowing his camera to push in for a closer look, or conjuring a heavenly burst of dazzling lens flares in certain scenes of endearment.
In one of the film’s most graceful, sensually alert sequences, Johan and Esther’s children frolic in a swimming hole. The wandering handheld camera gradually makes its way from the kids splashing in the water to the parents affectionately washing one of their daughters. Johan compliments Esther on her soaping technique in what is unmistakably the past tense, an inadvertently cruel intimation of their marriage’s looming expiration. The hurt is all but palpable and Reygadas stays with Esther’s devastated reaction until she finally steps out of frame, leaving the camera to linger on a vibrant Monet thicket of tall grass and flowers in mellifluous rack focus—another gesture indicative of Silent Light’s formal elegance and restraint.
Before we get carried away praising Reygadas’s renunciation of shock value and ostentatious formal noodling in favor of a newfound artistic “maturity,” it’s worth noting that his new film is not slavishly tethered to a mandate of innocent observation and serene naturalism. In fact, everything in Silent Light is carefully calibrated so as to earn a bravura finale in which the sense of the miraculous implicit in the opening sunrise is made manifest.
It’s also an intriguing nod to the oral fixation that Reygadas has been obsessively cultivating since the get-go. Of all the transgressions that distinguish Japón (02), Reygadas’s impressive debut, the most poetic is also the most understated. As he calmly prepares himself for suicide in a remote mountainous village, the unnamed protagonist (the late Alejandro Ferretis, whose terrifically craggy face, tumescent eyes, and shock of dark hair remind me of Al Pacino) either dreams or imagines the arrival of a drop-dead gorgeous woman. Presumably the man’s lost love, she emerges from the sea, gazes at the camera, and then advances toward Ascen (Magdalena Flores), the elderly widow with whom the man is currently lodging. The vision ends with the younger woman, whom we may presume to be dead, kissing Ascen on the lips.
The gesture is provocative, but nowhere near as much as when the man finds himself seeking spiritual renewal through copulation with the beatific, diminutive, and wizened Ascen. (Ascen, not coincidentally, is short for Ascension.) The kiss shared by the two women has nothing to do with kink but everything to do with Reygadas’s singular logic of transcendence. Whether we take the act as a foreshadowing of Ascen’s eventual death or as the triumph of the vitality these women embody in the suicidal man’s eyes, the moment is clearly intended to be sacred and transformative.
Likewise, the ethereal blow job that memorably bookends Battle in Heaven is positively loaded with transcendental spunk. Before Silent Light, it was hard to figure out why Reygadas selected this particular act—comely young woman Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz) sweetly sucking off the middle-aged, overweight, impassive Marcos (Marcos Hernández)—to symbolize the pair’s troubled contract of redemption. Now however, in light of the series of oral transactions that play out in each film, it somehow feels all of a piece, this ongoing preoccupation with the lips and mouth as the means of sublime communion.
Maybe it’s a Catholic thing, a way of rehabilitating the ritual of communion. Maybe it’s founded on the notion of respiration as the essence of life. Or maybe it’s a matter of Reygadas assigning to the mouth the ultimate power of transmitting knowledge and guidance—the power of the Word, whether it’s audible or, as is generally the case within Reygadas’s scenarios, silent.
The burden of influence has weighed more heavily on Reygadas than on his 21st-century world-cinema peers, including those, such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who arguably share his unusually earnest transcendentalism and penchant for attention-grabbing sex acts. The source of this problem lies partially in a critical handicap that confronts anyone discussing unconventional narrative films in terms that aren’t flush with comparisons. Yet, thankfully, Reygadas makes no bones about his points of reference, either in interviews or in the technique, image, and thematics of the films themselves. Japón is more than just a clever fusing of Kiarostami (the coolly enacted suicide quest, the acknowledgment of artifice) and Tarkovsky (extended shot duration, portentous traveling shots, the driver’s-seat view of an oncoming freeway that recalls Solaris), but there’s no mistaking the influence these directors exert on Reygadas’s film.
Alternately, the case can be made for Reygadas’s having found his own voice with Battle in Heaven simply because the film’s varied elements seem so inexplicable and resistant to broad comparison, while his use of largely nonprofessional actors constantly slips free of Bressonian dictums to invite moments of cultivated, if oneiric, emotion. Above all, Reygadas proves himself less a postmodern collagist than an adamantly personal filmmaker drawing upon an idiosyncratic palette of film history to incorporate whatever elements offer up the most juice—and ditching whatever confining aesthetic ideologies are meant to accompany them. Filmic precedents are finally just a toolbox, a means to an end.
Silent Light complicates matters, however, in mounting an overt homage, albeit one that’s sophisticated and engaging. Irrespective of the climactic moment that functions as a spectral link to Ordet, the ghost of Dreyer’s 1955 film begins to materialize within Reygadas’s atmospherics right from the first scene of silent prayer in Johan and Esther’s kitchen: the ticking clock, the farmhouse’s evocatively spare decor, the distinctive air of rural domesticity and God-fearing humility. Reygadas, who has referred to Silent Light as “Ordet’s little brother,” seems to embrace the notion that the two films are having a dialogue across time, space, and culture, veering off into their disparate realms from time to time before resuming the conversation and comparing notes—on the potency of true faith, the fulfilled promise of redemption for all, and the cinematic power of waiting, wondering, and awakening. Dreyer’s shadow aside, if Reygadas has ever subscribed to Bresson’s philosophy of narrative structure, it’s here in Silent Light, with its grueling emotional escalation leading up to a peak of exquisite release.
In the hands of a talented filmmaker with a clear sense of purpose, duration itself becomes a corporeal experience, and Reygadas’s honing of his long takes suggests he now grasps this. A car disappears over an incline, a garage stands totemically upon arid flatland, a father and son gaze out upon a blanket of snow searching for some means of imparting consolation. Striking a balance between the competing needs of rhythm, storytelling, and visual coherence, Reygadas and his editor Natalia López have paced Silent Light with remarkable tonal precision, pruning nearly every shot in a manner that encourages the mind to entertain a stray thought or two while maintaining a steady, languid focus on building the drama.
Each time I viewed Silent Light and arrived at its arrestingly touching mid-point scene—when Johan and Marianne decide to part, their hands sharing a final secret caress, before Johan retires to sit in a van with his kids and watch a Jacques Brel performance on a tiny television set—I longed for the film to end with this moment of melancholy heartache. I guess some naïve or cowardly part of me wants a love story to close cleanly, to adhere to the seductive wish-fulfillment of Leonard Cohen’s “True Love Leaves No Traces.” And Reygadas grants me my moment, grants Brel’s grainy, ghostly on-screen audience their applause, then fades to black. But, of course, Silent Light is far from over.
The protracted shots and scenes in Silent Light’s second half are cumulatively grueling, as they should be. As Dreyer did with Ordet, Reygadas makes you wait for the miracle—like the mourners attending the wake in the film’s long penultimate scene, those partaking of this story’s strange ritual must be patient, though anyone who’s stuck it out thus far must be in it for the long haul. This last section can be wearyingly painful, but the payoff is proportionately rewarding. And once the miracle has come and gone, Reygadas wastes no time basking in its afterglow: his camera quietly glides away, retreating once more through the theater of sun and earth and into the glittering darkness from whence it came.