Thou shalt not: Marianne (Maria Pankratz) and Johan (Cornelio Wall) are lovers in an adulterous affair in Silent Light, directed by Carlos Reygadas of Mexico
This is the film I’ve been the most eager to write about, and the most apprehensive. Eager, because I think it is the best film being shown at the trinidad+tobago film festival (not counting the classic Pather Panchali); apprehensive, because I don’t know if I can write about the film in a way that truly conveys its particular brilliance. Still, I’ll do my best.
On the simplest level Silent Light is the story of an eternal triangle. Johan is married to Esther, with whom he has five children. Johan is having an affair, however, with Marianne. Johan loves his wife sincerely, but he loves Marianne, too. Although he cares deeply for his wife and family, he wonders if Marianne isn’t the woman he is truly meant to be with–if she isn’t, to use the hackneyed term, his soul mate. What will Johan do? Remain with his family, and break things off with Marianne, or leave Esther and be with Marianne instead?
Of course, Silent Light isn’t just about a married man having an affair, just as all great films aren’t just about whatever the story happens to be. There are other elements at work. Silent Light is set in the Christian Mennonite community of northern Mexico. The Mennonites are a tightly knit, deeply religious and traditional community of German-descended people, somewhat like the Amish. They are family-centred people, do not strive particularly for material gain, and follow the Bible and its admonitions with particular strictness.
Set against this backdrop, Johan’s dilemma takes on a new, deeper dimension. He knows, strictly speaking, that his affair with Marianne is a sin, and is open about his wrongdoing–Esther has been aware of the affair almost from the beginning. But his love for Marianne is so great, the relationship not only physically, but even spiritually fulfilling, that he cannot truly think of the affair as wrong. When he asks his father, a preacher, for advice on the matter, his father says what is happening is the work of The Enemy. Johan’s response is that he thinks it is the work of God.
Time will prove which one of them is right, but this film is not really concerned with how things turn out in a conventional sense, which of the women Johan ends up with. Director Carlos Reygadas is more interested in presenting us with the experience that Johan goes through, his metaphysical journey, in arriving at his decision. More than that, he wants to evoke feelings in the film’s viewers, but not strictly in the conventional way, not through plot manipulation–there really is no plot to speak of–but mostly through the film’s visual, aural and acting style.
Reygadas seeks to achieve this in a number of ways. One is through the use of non-professional actors who give de-dramatised performances. Another is by the absence of a musical score (though there is music in the film, used to great effect), which heightens the film’s sound. The film’s design–its mise en scène–is spare, uncluttered. The camera style is of course key as well: there are long takes–the film’s opening and closing scenes are each single shots lasting some five minutes–intense close-ups and panoramic wide shots, all wonderfully integrated. And the film’s pacing is deliberately slow and measured.
To the viewer used to dramatic action coming thick and fast and lots of “acting”, this sort of film style can be off-putting. But get into its world and stick with it for the just-over two hour duration, and Silent Light repays you for your patience. The ending is one of the most luminous, transcendent and beautiful you could ever hope to see in a film, even as you ponder and puzzle over its mystifying, miraculous nature.
Ultimately, I think Silent Light achieves that rare goal of being not just a great work of art, but also being more than a film. It is some kind of sublime visual poem or hymn, and it touches and moves the part of us that the religious would call the soul. I don’t normally issue instructions in my reviews, but I’m making an exception in this case. Please, go see this film.