Saturday, February 23, 2008

Stellet Licht

A worthy winner of the Grand Jury prize at Cannes, 'Silent Light' is a continuation of Reygadas' work looking at love and desire, and how they put men at odds with society. Its long shots, atemporal timeframe and sparse dialogue are deliberately challenging, urging us to interpret events on a moral and spiritual level as the film asks what truly is acceptable human behaviour. Outstanding.

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.

To mention Carlos Reygadas’ winsome Silent Light in the same breath as key directors Carl Theodor Dreyer, Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, and the more recent Bruno Dumont is not hyperbole. The six-minute opening shot of a sunrise may sound like cinematic folly, but cinematographer Alexis Zabe (Duck Season, Child’s Play) has created a beautiful sequence that would not be out of place in the Louvre.

This striking opening also effortlessly transplants the audience from the travails of modern life into the state of Chihuahua in Mexico where a community of Mennonites resides. Reygadas, as ever, refuses to spoonfeed the audience: the only clue that the characters are Mennonites is in the fact that they speak Plautdietsch, while only the press notes confirm that the action takes place in Chihuahua.

The sparse plot involves Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), a father of seven, who comes to the conclusion that local ice cream vendor Marianne (Maria Pankratz) may be the love of his life rather than his wife Esther (Miriam Toews). The use of long shots, an atemporal timeframe, limited dialogue, and blank-faced non-actors is purposely challenging, highlighting the need to interpret events on a moral and spiritual level. Film buffs will recognise that the central exploration of what is acceptable human behaviour, is lifted straight from Dreyer’s Ordet.

At its very best, Carlos Reygadas's new film has the richness of Malick or the transcendental simplicity of Ozu; at its occasional worst, it has the whiff of Lars von Trier. But make no mistake: this is a deeply considered, formally accomplished, beautiful-looking and unexpectedly gripping film from a director making a giant leap into the first rank of world cinema. On finally fading to black, it leaves behind on the blank screen, as if on the inside of a closed eyelid, a shimmering sense of having looked into something overwhelmingly powerful.

It is certainly a clear and satisfying development from Reygadas' enigmatic first feature Japón, and far superior to his ambitious but clumsy and overblown second film Battle in Heaven, a misstep whose silliness and shallowness it very much exposes. Silent Light has some sublime, meditative moments: moments of pure, unapologetic visual ecstasy that come close to repealing the cinematic laws of gravity.

Moving with unforced, almost geological slowness, Reygadas establishes, in a series of tableaux, the setting for a tale of forbidden love in a rural Dutch-dialect-speaking Mennonite community in Mexico, whose adherents wear the shawls and austere clothing of their northern European forefathers. The film begins with an audacious, extended shot of the sun rising, evidently achieved through time- lapse, but so slowly as to appear to be happening in real time - an impression subtly reinforced by the fading-in of the ever-present soundtrack of crickets, cicadas and lowing cattle.

Johan (Cornelio Wall) is a hardworking farmer whom we see at the beginning presiding over the saying of grace at a family breakfast. There are evidently tensions with his wife Esther (Miriam Toews); and we soon learn that he is having an affair with another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz) who is apparently unattached. It is a love triangle that is to cause agony and tears, but not precisely the messy anger and voluble recrimination that we might expect from another sort of movie, or indeed from real life.

Reygadas's vision is more stylised than this. The pain of infidelity is floatingly suspended in a kind of trance, but arguably this is how people can and sometimes do deal with the transgression and pain of infidelity: a reticent, middle-distance-gazing sort of trance that allows you to ignore the elephant in the living room.

I am not being entirely facetious when I say that the first mental port of call for viewers approaching this film might be Peter Weir's classic 1985 thriller Witness, in which Harrison Ford's tough cop finds himself hiding out in a Pennsylvania Amish community, and falls hard for Kelly McGillis's beautiful young widow. Many of Reygadas' group scenes of rustic peasant faces, in church, or eating breakfast in severe blondwood kitchens at the crack of dawn, do have a familiar look to them. But in Witness, the sexual transgressor was alien to the group, and recognised as such by a group of clerical "elders". Here, Johan is one of the group, is denounced by no such authority and never publicly disgraced as such, even when the affair leads to a terrible tragedy.

So there is no dramatic crisis imposed on the lovers from without, and the acting style is contained and even lugubrious - except for especially created emotional scenes - and this, I suspect, is a result of working with non-professionals. Like many contemporary directors, Reygadas has chosen not to encourage his amateurs to speak in the quick speech rhythms and overlapping dialogue of real life, but keep it as deadpan as possible. This avoids embarrassment and has a kind of consistency and formal calm.

It is admittedly a little unreal and weirdly passionless sometimes, and this is where I feel Reygadas' rather exotically imagined rural-religious community might have been drawn up with a view to camouflaging this technique. In the real world, the Mennonites probably speak quite as sloppily as the rest of us. At these points, I was also uneasily reminded of the far-fetched fictional Scottish religious sect in Breaking the Waves.

Having said all of this, Reygadas communicates in a superbly controlled cinematic idiom and conjures up a hypnotic address to the viewer. And he creates a fascinating context for a powerful exchange between Johan and his lover Marianne after they have made love for the last time. Peace is stronger than love, he tells her, and after they have given each other up, "there will be pain, then peace, then such happiness as we have never known". In the midst of his agony, Johan asks his lover, and us, to imagine a future after their love has ceased, and to have faith in it.

I'm not sure I can say quite the same thing about the ambiguously visionary miracle that Reygadas creates for the end of his movie, a miracle that occurs as a result of a form of spiritual meeting between the women: a meeting that is very much the work of a male director.

But like the rest of the film it has a terrific kind of self-possession, and shows a ringing confidence in the luminous strange world it inhabits.

The sheer ambition of Reygadas has always been startling; now he is developing a consistency, a maturity and a rigorous visual sense to match it. There are things here not to like and not to believe in, sure. But what a change from the mediocre and derivative stuff on offer elsewhere. Here is cinema to wonder at, to argue about.

I'll admit to having engaged in a fair amount of eye rolling when I first read that Stellet Licht, Carlos Reygadas' third feature, was to be a tale of adultery set in a north Mexico Mennonite community, with dialog entirely in Plautdietsch to boot. For even though Battle in Heaven made my Top Ten of 2006, it bothered me that Reygadas would once again build a film around a (potentially) controversial conceit. Yet perhaps it's fair to ask – would Japón have received as much attention without the explicit octogenarian sex? Would Battle in Heaven have landed US distribution were it not for its beauty and the beast blowjob scene? Probably not. But has it reached the point where cinematic provocation is now de rigueur for Reygadas?
Thankfully, no.

The microcosm that is the world of Stellet Licht is no gimmick, but rather the perfect stage for this passion play that is as much about spirituality and sacrifice as it is sex and love. Yet Reygadas isn't interested in ethnography – all we glean of Mennonite culture is that they are a deeply pious bunch with familial and societal roles that are both traditional and unambiguous. Reygadas sees them as archetypes, and in a recent interview explained how this enabled him to "concentrate on the essential: the love story."

On the surface we have a simple love triangle – Johan (Cornelio Wall Feher), husband to Esther (Miriam Toews) and father of six, is having an affair with Marianne (Maria Pankratz). Though completely open about the affair with both friends and family, Johan suffers a crisis of faith (is Marianne a test from god, or the devil himself?) as well as a struggle of the heart over which woman to choose. (In this regard the film shares quite a bit with Valeska Grisebach's Sehnsucht.)

As with his other films, Stellet Licht's tremendous power comes not from its narrative, but from Reygadas' aesthetics; a masterful, poetic blending of son et image. The film exists at the intersection of John Ford and Terrence Malick, what with its epic landscapes, use of shadow, and depiction of nature and the elements as almost sentient beings. (A minor character wears a highly conspicuous 'Ford Country' shirt.) Spiritually there is an obvious nod to Dreyer's Ordet, though the human drama unfolds in way that is decidedly Bergmanesque. The film opens (appropriately enough) with a breathtaking six-minute shot that is no less a recreation of the opening passages of Genesis, with its separating of light from the darkness. The silence soon gives rise to increasingly louder caterwauls of livestock, and finally we are introduced to Johan and his family, sitting in silent prayer around the breakfast table, the ticking of a clock the only sound we hear. The dawn of man indeed.

The remaining two-plus hours consist of one jaw-dropping sequence after another, yet not once does it venture into style-over-substance territory. There's a heightened sense of naturalism to it all, particularly in the relationships between the characters themselves, and the physical world in which the film is set. A scene with Johan and his family at a bathing pool is harmonious to the point of feeling more like a bit of cinéma vérité than scripted drama. A close-up extended kiss between Johan and Marianne in a field of flowers (complete with lens flare) feels almost intrusive. Still, Reygadas does add a few playful surprises including an unexpected weather reveal, and an even more unexpected appearance of Jacques Brel.

The sacrificial act that closes the film (a point of contention for some critics) is at once both a depiction of spiritual immanence (not always easy to achieve in film), as well as a testament to the selfless power of love; equal parts sacred and profane. (In some ways the film is the antipode of Secret Sunshine, but that's a topic for a separate post.) Stellet Licht has stayed with me more than any of the other fifteen films I've seen so far at the festival. A near-masterpiece that should silence detractors who view Reygadas as little more than a courter of controversy. This is a work of sheer beauty -- a film that serves to remind us why it is we love the art of cinema so much.

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