There are some directors whose films burn with a passion for composition and the precise movement of their camera. There are those, too, who reject speedy editing and a quick pace in favour of creating space for contemplation and examination. Carlos Reygadas is both of those directors, and while he may not have wholly succeeded with his debut, ‘Japón’, or its follow-up, ‘Battle in Heaven’, both of which were striking but overshadowed by distracting flights of provocation – old people having sex! Inter-generational blow-jobs! – he has now made a much more mature, coherent and serious work, and one which is certainly the best yet from this rising star of thoughtful, artful cinema.
It’s impossible to prise apart the real, the spiritual and the elemental in ‘Silent Light’, a tragic drama of love, routine, adultery and God’s will that plays out in a community of Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites in rural Mexico and which owes a large debt to Antonioni and, more specifically, Dreyer. Paunchy, ruddy Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) and stick-thin, dowdy Esther (Miriam Toews) are arable farmers who live a life of routine with their three young kids in the presence of God. That same God leads Johan to Marianne (Maria Pankratz), his mistress, who his friend tells him is ‘the woman nature meant for you’. Their one, discreet sexual encounter is handled superbly by Reygadas who infuses this pivotal, ominous scene with a desperation, longing and spiritual gravity that echoes Marianne’s feeling that this is ‘the saddest time of my life – but also the best’.
Reygadas, again working with non-professionals, offers realism in front of the lens – the routines of eating, bathing and working are lent an extra fascination by the alien world of the Mennonites – and poetry within it. From the opening time-lapse sunrise, each sequence is carefully and pointedly constructed – and often with a breathtaking beauty, whether it’s the movement of a combine harvester through a field or a lingering shot of a flower after a lyrical, near-silent, beguiling sequence of kids taking a dip in a pond. Time and again, Reygadas’ fixed shots segue into dead-slow zooms, each of them suggestive of the import of the moment and the coming tragedy. When tragedy comes – Johan’s affair is not without repercussions of the most disastrous (or maybe even the most divinely willed) kind – it offers one of the most shocking, unexpected and daring finales in a long while.