Thursday, July 17, 2008

Review: "Silent Light"

The opening shot of Carlos Raygadas' Silent Light has to rank as one of the most breathtaking shots in recent memory. Opening on a dark, starry sky, the camera pans across a million sparkling points of light, before settling on what we soon realize is a tree lined horizon, and for the next five minutes, we watch one of the most glorious, uninterrupted sunrises ever captured on film.

I was not the biggest fan of Raygadas' last film, Battle in Heaven, which I found to be merely adequate. But I was hooked from the first frame of Silent Light. As the sun rises and the camera begins a soon-to-be trademark slow zoom that signals the significance of the shot, we are introduced to a solemn Mennonite family at dinner. As it turns out, the father, Johan, is having an affair with another woman in their community, after many years of marriage with lots of children to show for it.

Wracked by guilt and grief, the deeply religious Johan faces a dilemma between family duty and love, between virtue and sin, and a crisis of faith that may be bringing him closer to Satan than to God.

The first thing one notices about Silent Light, even before the gorgeous cinematography, is the silence. The film is eerily silent, sometimes unnervingly so (not a note of music is heard in the entire film), perfectly reflecting the quiet despondency of its characters. The dialogue, despite this being a Mexican film, is almost entirely in the German dialect of Plautdietsch, but there is precious little dialogue to begin with. Raygadas is a director who shows and doesn't tell, allowing the audience to pick up on the nuances created by the images and the actors' performances.

Their silence speaks volumes about who they are and the kind of lives they live. Johan is a simple man who leads a simple life, who suddenly finds himself faced with a situation he has no idea how to handle, even less so in the face of the religious conundrum he finds himself in. His beleaguered wife, with whom he shares his woes, is torn between her wish for Johan's happiness and her desire to keep her family together. Her vacant stares, which are observed in many long, unedited takes from Raygadas' unflinching camera, offer a window into the soul of a wounded woman.

Watching the film, I was reminded of Carl Th. Dreyer's Ordet (Denmark, 1955), and as the film progresses the parallels become even more clear. Especially in the film's final scene, the links between the two films are almost undeniable. Silent Light is the best Dreyer film that Dreyer never made. Raygadas seems to be channeling Dreyer's visual prowess with his mastery of silence and religious gravity, that is evident in all of his films, from Ordet to his supreme masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

I often hesitate to use the "M" word when reviewing films, as it is often abused and has loses its meaning when every other film is proclaimed a masterpiece by some critic somewhere. But it is the only word that seems to apply. Silent Light is a masterpiece, the stuff of legend. It is a stunning work, a transcendent, nearly spiritual experience, from the breathtaking opening shot to the haunting final frame.

There has been some confusion recently over when and if the film will ever make it to American screens. The final verdict is still up in the air, but it is available on all region DVD from Amazon UK. This is a film that deserves to be seen, and I hope this is all sorted out soon, because a film of this caliber should not be hidden away, it should be let out into the light for all to see. It's definitely not going to be for all tastes, it is slow, deliberate, and very specific in its design. But it is keenly observed and masterfully crafted, worthy of the company of Dreyer's name. Silent Light is a knockout sucker-punch of a movie whose power is as loud as a whisper.

GRADE - **** (out of four)

SILENT LIGHT (STELLET LICHT); Directed by Carlos Raygadas; Stars Cornelio Wall, Miriam Toews, Maria Pankratz, Jacobo Klassen, Peter Wall; Not Rated; In Plautdietsch w/English subtitles

5 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Wow, where is this film playing? I live right outside Manhattan, and it doesn't appear to be here. When you exude passion for a film, you really write beautifully (not that you don't when you are indifferent or writing a pan) but the comparison with Dreyer's masterpiece, ORDET, and saying this is the "greatest film that Dreyer never made," well, you've sold me. Looks great.

Matthew Lucas said...

Thanks Sam!

Sadly, it's not playing here yet. Distribution is still up in the air. If you want to see it, you'll have to follow the link and pick up the DVD at Amazon UK. It's all region DVD so you shouldn't have any trouble playing it, and it's not terribly expensive.

nick plowman said...

Fantastic review my friend!!!

Sorry I didn’t read it sooner, I’ve been super busy with exams.

I have since bought the film on DVD myself, and seen it 2 more times, and changed my rating of the film from 3.5/5 to 4/5 stars. Love it!

Matthew Lucas said...

Thanks Nicky! I haven't fallen for a film like this since "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," and honestly I would have trouble choosing between the two for the best film I've seen this year. Masterful stuff.

Anonymous said...

Have read several reviews, incldg Ebert's cloying gushing tripe; and have to ask "WHO are you guys kidding?" SILENT LIGHT has to be the WORST film ever viewed, right up there with PARIS TEXAS! Slow to the point of sheer torment and the actors all seemed (pardon the expression) RETARDED. Johan was a selfish nitwit and the two women, homely as sin, could've been twin sisters. This film, in short, sucks. PS Their version of "singing" was also horrific.