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TSPDT 2013: Silent Light

Posted by martinteller on February 24, 2013

Johan (Cornelio Wall) is a Mennonite farmer in Mexico.  He and his wife Esther (Miriam Toews) raise a brood of six (or is it seven? I lost count) children.  But there is something between them.  Johan has been seeing another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz).  He’s been open about it with Esther, and all three of them are suffering, with the future unknown.

This film brings to mind several other directors, many of them my favorites.  Malick, in the breathtaking attention to gorgeous images.  The scene of Johan’s family bathing in a river, for instance, doesn’t seem to add much to “the story” (except perhaps to illustrate what Johan has at stake) but is a stunning sequence, moving in its eloquent beauty.  Tarr, in the patient pacing and rich textile feel of the movie.  The sound design especially (there is no score) gives it a heightened sense of place, drawing the audience in.  Bresson, in the use of non-professional actors and stripped-down performances.  Most of the actors are Mennonites themselves, and all give interesting and sincere — though minimal — performances.  The dialogue is mostly in Plautdietsch, a hybrid of German and Dutch spoken by Mennonites in Latin America.  Bergman, in the struggles with faith.  Is it mere coincidence that the title is an amalgam of The Silence and Winter Light?  And of course, Dreyer, whose Ordet this movie pays homage to and resembles strongly.

Although sometimes I feel Reygadas’s devotion to a formal aesthetic gets in the way of the emotional content, it’s a very lovely and occasionally moving film.  There are mysteries to be pondered (snow?) and the meditative, gentle nature of the pacing works a spell on the viewer.  The questions of faith are injected very subtly… so subtly, in fact, that they are a mystery in themselves.  Johan believes his dilemma is the work of God.  His father believes it to be the devil (but there are no fire-and-brimstone speeches here… religion is handled with an easy touch).  Later, Johan thinks it’s all man’s doing.  Has he lost faith?  What does he see when he enters that room in the end?

It’s an enigmatic and thoughtful piece of work, with painterly images.  It’s difficult to say if the message is hopeful or mournfully tragic.  I imagine it’s a film that rewards repeated viewings.  I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing it again, or more by Reygadas.  Rating: Very Good (85)

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