SILENT LIGHT (Carlos Reygadas, 2007)

From Mexico, but in Plautdietsch, not Spanish, because it deals with Mennonites, Stellet licht is as mysterious as either cosmos or humanity. Its title refers to dawn, but also to cinema, and writer-director Carlos Reygadas draws upon Dreyer, Bergman (note the clock), Tarkovsky (note the wet), Tarr, others. Recalling Sokurov’s Spiritual Voices (1996), the opening shot is a long time-lapsed observance of dawn’s light replacing darkness at a farm outside Chihuahua. (Animal noises, both savage and domestic, abound.) Thus Reygadas introduces a central theme: transformations that seem like ruptures actually occur gradually, cumulatively. The film ends with a garish sunset passing into darkness.
     Esther (Miriam Toews, gut-wrenching) and Johan are a Mennonite couple with six children. Much of the film details the family at farm work and play. Johan is having an affair with Marianne; he has confided his infidelity to Esther but (with her knowledge) continues it. Marianne, torn between flesh and decency, ends the affair, telling Johan, “Peace is stronger than love”; but, believing Marianne is his soul-mate, Johan presses her back into the affair. How does all this affect Esther? She is mostly a “silent light”; her forbearance seems admirable, resolute. However, she confesses being shattered by the betrayal: “I have lost my place in the world.” Eventually a massive heart attack kills her and Johan finds his guilt and sorrow compounded. Marianne comes to the funeral service and kisses the corpse on the lips. Esther’s eyes open; Esther says, “Poor Johan.” Love is stronger than peace.
     Throughout, the camera enters or nearly enters dark spaces, such as the shed where we not-quite-see Marianne’s bare ass as Marianne and Johan have stand-up sex. At the funeral, through a window the figures indoors around Esther’s laid-out body, including Johan, are diaphanous reflections—ghosts.

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