The screen shines with ‘Silent Light’



Through Jan. 20

Written and directed by Carlos Reygadas

Film Forum

209 West Houston Street

212-727-8110; filmforum.org

Avoiding all the usual cues of conventional Hollywood dramas, inviting the viewer to push closer – and think deeper – about the hearts being broken on the screen, Carlos Reygadas’s “Silent Light” has already been hailed at film festivals as a minimalist masterpiece. This is a quiet and patient film, a soothing meditation on why men of faith believe, and what happens when that faith is tested. There are some who might consider the movie’s many slow pans or zooms – scenes here play out in minutes, not seconds – as plodding, or boring, but there’s no denying that the magic of this experience is to be found in its tempo. A slow story about a slow-moving people, brought methodically to the precipice in a crisis of faith, Reygadas (“Japon,” “Battle in Heaven”) is one of those rare filmmakers who’s interested less in thrills or chills that in challenging audiences to think about what characters are feeling.

Johan (Cornelio Wall) is a man introduced at the family dinner table. He’s a Mennonite farmer, simple and devout, and suffering from a torn conscience. His family leaves to go on the day’s chores, but Johan stays seated at the table and cries once they are out of earshot. Something is terribly wrong. Through a series of awkward, stilted conversations, we learn the situation: He has cheated on his wife, and he’s conflicted about the fact that he’s not the least bit torn up about the sin.

Johan discusses this infidelity with his father, who confesses to his son that he, too, has flirted with and fought back thoughts of lust and betrayal. But Johan thinks this might be God’s will, and his discussions of this affair with his wife Esther (Miriam Toews) are not heated bursts of accusations and anger but matter-of-fact statements about how he feels and what he can and cannot turn his back on. This Mennonite community is one of absolutes, and while Johan knows the dangers of sinning he also knows the joy this new love has brought to his life. In one bright and brilliant scene, Reygadas watches as Johan meets Marianne (Maria Pankratz) in the middle of a field, kissing in the sunlight.

The opening, six-minute shot of “Silent Light” is glorious, and sets the tone for what’s to come. The camera points up into the night sky, as a small band of clouds ring the stars, and then slowly spins as it pans down to Earth, zooming in on the horizon at the precise moment of dawn. It’s a hypnotic, perfectly choreographed moment, one that basks in the glory of a new day. But there’s little difference between this reverential nature shot, and the way Reygadas’s camera carefully studies a distraught Johan, a depressed Esther and an enamored Marianne. He’s a filmmaker who is fascinated by how humans behave at the extremes, and much like Carl Dreyer’s “Ordet,” or even Terrence Malick’s “The New World,” the plot and the dialogue are less important than the silent moments of debate and reflection.

It’s little surprise that the non-professional actors assembled here are asked chiefly to hit their marks, and that the drama acts within a narrow emotional range. When one character suddenly bursts into tears, after more than an hour of calm and meditation, it feels as if we’ve been knocked off our feet by a depth charge of emotion. More often than not, the characters are mere props in a larger setting, the emotional vessels at the center of Reygadas’s glorious, widescreen compositions.

As for the film’s title, it may refer to the opening and closing moments of the film, which are a silent study of sunrise and sunset. Or it may pertain to an ever-present, ever-hidden Creator, mysteriously at work behind the scenes (in one startling gesture, as Marianne secretly hugs Johan, she reaches up to block out the glare of the sun, acting as if it is the eye of God). For while the surface story is rather bland – man cheats on wife, they talk about it, cope with unexpected emotional fallout – what’s riveting is the way that the camera lingers. In Johan’s longings and confusion, in Esther’s sadness and fear, Reygadas sees more than just a story of two hearts. Their struggle between being good and being happy is universal, and Reygadas is benevolent and obsessive in the way he views them. The silent light of day is not prying but loving, and Reygadas spends two hours showing how the sinners Johan and Marianne are every bit as beautiful as any of God’s creations – not despite their flaws, but perhaps because of them.