With the likes of Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu amongst his admirers, Carlos Reygadas has emerged in recent years as the Mexican filmmaker’s filmmaker. Moreover, with his previous two features – Japón (2002) and Battle in Heaven (2005) – he proved himself amongst the most distinctive voices in contemporary world cinema. An uncompromising vision of human folly, Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven, for all its virtues and its gritty use of Mexico City locations, drew criticism for its provocative tone and the director confessed to wanting a calmer pitch for his next project. Screened to rapturous acclaim in Cannes, where Reygadas won a much deserved Jury Prize, Silent Light remains to my eyes the Mexican’s most assured, visually accomplished and least contentious feature yet.
Set amidst a Mennonite community in Chihuahua, northern Mexico, the minimalist narrative focuses on the plight of Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), a respected husband and father who breaks the rules of his society by embarking on an affair with another woman (María Pankratz). Johan has been honest with his wife (Miriam Toews) about his adultery, but this does little to reconcile the conflicts raging within him. Inspired by primal, Neo-Biblical imagery and the work of Dreyer (whose Ordet is directly referenced though some may say ‘lifted’) Silent Light is a moving mediation on love and betrayal. Shot almost entirely in the Mennonite’s traditional Plautdietsch language and shorn of sexual explicitness, Reygadas again uses non-actors to superlative effect, casting for their Kuleshov-like expressiveness and teasing out performances of remarkable intensity.
Working for the first time with cinematographer Alexis Zabé (Duck Season) and using only natural light, the film is a visual and spiritual tour de force. The opening and closing six minute time-lapse photography sequence revealing a night sky as it slowly turns from dawn to daybreak is a breathtakingly executed cinematic moment. Quite frankly, one could never tire of viewing it. A profoundly spiritual work of both depth and complexity, Silent Light cast quite a shadow over the landscape of world cinema.
Jason Wood is director of programming at Curzon Cinemas. He has contributed to many publications including The Guardian, Sight and Sound and The New Statesman and is author of the of 100 Independent American Films and 100 Road Movies.