Pic tells a muted story of adultery and spiritual crisis unfolding amidst a modern-day Mennonite community.
Shades — and, by the end, big, unmistakable splotches — of Carl Dreyer’s “Ordet” color “Silent Light,” the third and certainly most unexpected film from Mexican cinema enfant terrible Carlos Reygadas. Rep-ping an about-face in setting and tone from helmer’s 2005 Cannes shocker “Battle in Heaven,” “Light” tells a muted story of adultery and spiritual crisis unfolding amidst a modern-day Mennonite community. Reygadas’ typically arresting widescreen visuals and the presence of non-pro actors speaking in German-derived Plautdietsch makes for an initially hypnotic combination, but the spell breaks its hold well before the end of pic’s inflated running time, signaling an endurance test for all but the most ascetic arthouse auds.
Jaw-dropping opening shot — a six-minute-long time-lapse image of a nighttime sky slowly giving way to dawn and then full-fledged daybreak — establishes the vastness of the film’s physical landscape and leaves no doubt about Reygadas’ awesome abilities with the camera. Pic then segues to a more domestic tableau, as Men-nonite couple Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) and Esther (Miriam Toews), living on the outskirts of Chihuahua, sit at their breakfast table, surrounded by their young children. They eat in relative quiet, after which Esther departs with the kids to run unspecified errands while Johan stays behind and, sitting alone at the table, slowly begins to weep.
When Johan travels to a nearby garage to pick up a new crankshaft for his tractor, he confides in a friend, Zacarias (Jacobo Klassen), the source of his woe: He has been having an affair with another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), who he feels may be the love of his life. Subsequent meeting between Johan and Marianne, who he finds waiting for him in a clearing in the woods, culminates in a tastefully filmed sex scene set in a small shed where water cascades down from the roof. (As in the work of Terence Malick — another of Reygadas’ obvi-ous influences — primal, neo-Biblical nature imagery abounds.)
Much of what follows in “Silent Light” concerns Johan’s internal struggle to reconcile his deep religious con-victions with his bodily desires — a dilemma not entirely dissimilar to the one faced by the put-upon limo driver at the center of “Battle in Heaven.” He visits his father, who suggests that the devil may be responsible for Johan’s predicament. We also lean that Johan has been up front with Esther about the affair from the start, though she never confronts him about it.
But despite some strikingly poetic moments — including a haunting shot of Johan driving at night, tears faintly visible on his face as it moves in and out of the shadows — it’s generally difficult to get a bead on how Johan or Esther are feeling at any given moment, for so intent is Reygadas on exploiting these non-actors for their full Kuleshovian inexpressiveness.
As Marianne, Pankratz makes a considerably more forceful impression, and ends up creating the film’s most three-dimensional character, though Reygadas’ decision to keep her out of the story for most of the film’s first half feels like a dramatic miscalculation. It’s only late in the day that we even discover her vocation — a drive-thru attendant at a predominately Mennonite ice-cream shop — in what ends up as one of pic’s most memorable scenes. By the time pic finally takes hold emotionally, in the final — and directly Dreyer-esque — Reygadas’ deliberate longeurs will have become too much for many in the audience to bear.
Whereas “Heaven” and its full-frontal-assault on Mexican nationalism felt like the calculated gesture of a pro-vocateur, “Silent Light” is recognizably the work of an altogether more mature, serious filmmaker. Reygadas is clearly fascinated by the film’s subjects, who he approaches with reverence and respect. Yet what Reygadas is ultimately trying to say — aside from the somewhat reductive conceit that these people are somehow “closer to God” — remains opaque.
Pic’s extraordinary visual riches are matched by an elaborate soundscape that transforms the crunch of snow on the ground, the chirping of crickets at dusk and the lapping of water against rocks into a crescndoing natural symphony.