There are moments…many, many moments in fact…in Carlos Reygadas’ latest film that are so deeply moving, so utterly profound in their concept and execution, that I quite often sat in my seat, feeling my brain reaching towards the screen, desperately trying to grapple with what I was witnessing, all the while floating peacefully through the imagery.
This is an odd experience, I must say.
The film is an odd experience, though, so it worked out pretty well. Exploring the affair one man, Johan, has from a religious standpoint—instead of “I am more attracted to this woman than my wife,” it’s “God meant for me to be with this woman; being with my wife was a mistake”—is an interesting starting point, and even besides the film’s obvious capacity for visual revolution (I watch a lot of films, but there are shots in this film that I have never seen before), the film is still quite extraordinary. The plot may be spare, but the characters—despite appearances—are not, and the film’s…let’s be generous and call it an “even pace” (which is to say many will find it “slow”) felt totally earned, as it allows us a way into a community based largely on peace and reflection (the family prayer, which begins with the traditional “let us pray” and “amen,” is filled with silence until the father closes it), and to allow the weight of Johan’s decision and the impossibility of ever again finding that peace he so desperately needs (Cornelio Wall gives a fantastic performance that, for most of the film, is a new landmark in subtlety).
The film’s ability to be anything it needs to be at any moment—a pleasant family memory, a visceral confrontation with oneself, a spare reflection on finding peace—is achieved primarily in Reygadas’ form, which is constantly, overwhelming beautiful, always to an end. Whether it be the elliptical editing that accompanies the family bathing, the use of the sun as a light source to show us Johan and his lover’s affection for each other, the empty, unblemished solidarity of a funeral (white rooms haven’t been as captivating since 2001), or the aggressive presence of a ticking clock, the formal choices always inform what we take from it.
Would that Reygadas’ writing was up to the task his direction is (I should also note that the performances are uniformly astounding, and Reygadas made some of the best use of child actors, often allowing his form to work around the children while still maintaining the aura of total authorship). The story is quite lovely and thought provoking, but a few scenes don’t quite work on their own. The problem is that Reygadas’ dialogue is often overwrought without being particularly poetic. It’s as though his characters are trying to express deep thoughts about the nature of man and the union of marriage, but do not have the capacity to. If this were a creative choice Reygadas made, to illustrate the failure of man’s expression, I suppose it’s an interesting one, but it would still not be particularly successful.
Reading that over, it’s astounding how large a difference that should make, but how little it truly affects the impact of the film, one I’m wrestling with days later. I still have no idea what to make of the end of the narrative, but I’m more than a little okay with that. Godard once said that any great film is so because of some sort of misunderstanding; something elusive that cannot quite be grasped. Silent Light is absolutely that, and wonderfully so. I haven’t been so illuminated, so connected to the world around me, by a film all year as I was with Silent Light.