Silent Light (2007)

Directed by Carlos Reygadas

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Silent Light is a terrifically beautiful film.  It’s slow but with intent, a patience that absorbs and envelops you, like you are turning back into the atoms which make up all of us and everything around us.  Or maybe that’s just the effect of many patient, meditative films, which use time, silence and observation of repeated physical movements to hypnotize us.

The story is yanked out of a melodrama, but it’s portrayed as anything but.  What the characters feel, they feel deep within their soul, and it is something that seems to erode them over the course of the film, as if in real time we are watching their flesh and blood dissolve into dust, dirt and stars.

The film opens and closes with a sunrise and sunset, and while I may be a bit too grandiose in describing all of this, it does feel in some way like the literal creation and extinction of the universe.

Soon after we meet a family of Mennonites, a deeply religious community, living in a rural area of Mexico.  The parents are Johan and Esther, and they have six young children.  For a few minutes of screen time they sit in complete and utter silence while the ticking of a clock puts us in a trance.  It’s not until Johan finally says “amen” that they come back to life from prayer.  Soon after the family departs the kitchen while Johan remains, his wife comforts him and insists he take his time before joining them.  Then he turns off the ticking clock and slowly begins to cry.

Johan loves his wife, but he has recently fallen in love with another woman, Marianne.  Their relationship is a strange sort, like something between the only two humans left in a world of non-human creatures, except that they are unable to speak.  They look at each other in long stretches of silence, then in one moment they kiss for an uncomfortably long time.  Because the entire film emphasizes sounds that most movies try to suppress, we hear every slop and slurp of their passionate, carnal and somewhat grating embrace.

The characters do speak when the time calls for it, but most of their emotion and inner turbulence is conveyed without dialogue.  They look at each other for enough time that their expressionless gaze feels charged with despair.  In other moments they are framed in such wide shots that they are overwhelmed by the natural environment around them. In other situations we see them pushed off to the side or offscreen altogether while some action (like a tractor plowing over old cornstalks) dominates the scene, both visually and auditorily.  It’s as if they are being pushed off the face of the world and existence itself, simply parasites being scrubbed away by all that is natural to the world.

Tragedy will later strike, followed by an inexplicable miracle, and then the film is over.  Whether it is all literal, who knows and what does it even matter.  The film conveys such strong, palpable emotion and, well it’s not really heartbreak so much as a deeper sorrow.  It feels as though the disintegrating relationship between Johan and Esther, with each of them well aware of his infidelity, is simply the last lifeline they have hung onto in a lifetime full of sadness.

And there is so much around them that it would seem they are thankful for, most notably their children, but within the course of this film they are defined by the distance between them.  Before the story has even begun Johan has admitted to Esther his affair and done so because he thinks it is simply the right thing to do.  He explains it to her as if it’s a clinical depression or a sudden bout of nausea.  It’s something he is powerless to overcome, and she should know about it.

It’s a fascinating, sparse film that is in such control at all times.  Making a film of long takes seems in a way deceptively easy, but here so many moments are expertly put together, with a subtly impressive choreography.  Every moment is so meticulous and precise, and it all works like a strange kind of elixir, with each ingredient pushing you one step closer to some kind of emotional catharsis.

Up Next: Safety Last! (1923), Generation Wealth (2018), Back to the Future (1985)

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