Solemn Dilemma

By FilmNerd March 27, 2009

Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany, 2007) takes the time to be beautiful. 


The movie begins with a stunning five-minute shot of the dark northern Mexico sky. As the camera turns in a graceful spiral, it pans down on the country plains. Gradually, the loud crickets quiet their singing as the morning creatures take over. The camera zooms in on the sunrise, and the shot closes in the full light of day. 

The movie ends with an equally languid—and stunning— five minute shot of the sunset, zooming then panning and spiraling away into the night sky as the crickets’ voices swell. 

Between these shots, Reygadas’ fourth film tells the story—also in slow motion—of illicit love and penance in a northern Mexican Mennonite community. Johan is torn between his duties to his family and long-time wife, Esther, and his passion for the woman he now believes he was fated to love, Marianne. Certainly, it's one of the oldest storylines in Western culture, but Reygadas' decision to linger gives the conceit new patience, understanding, and the grace it actually deserves.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that average shot length in this movie exceeds a minute (compared to under five seconds in most current films). Reygadas' extended shots give the viewer time to contemplate not only the beauty of the surroundings, but also the Mennonite way of life, and most importantly the pain experienced by the love triangle protagonists who live in this Mennonite universe.

The characters are portrayed by lay actors from Mennonite communities around the world. They speak Plautdietsch, an otherwise obsolete (and barely comprehensible) form of German. They reject the acceleration of modern life.  Instead, their existence is grounded in hard work, faith, and a deep loyalty to their own insular society. Always separate from society, Mennonites were first truly isolated by their radical pacifism, which drove many to settle in the New World between the 17th and 19th centuries, and later by post-WWI anti-German sentiments, which drove them to Northern Mexico, where about 100,000 reside today. 

The classic dilemma represented here is that of the community versus the individual. Should Johan follow his passion and fulfill his desires as an individual, or should he recognize his responsibility to his close-knit, supportive community? The intensity of this community heightens the drama of a situation that filmgoers may have become too blase about.    

Johan puts the question to his father, also a preacher, who warns him to be wary of “the enemy,” but assures his son of parental support regardless of the choice he will make.  “I understand you,” his father says.  In this context, and in this community, that statement means more than three words alone can express. 

As Johan continues to deliberate, he and the women continue to suffer. Marianne, meanwhile, loves a man who belongs to another woman and six children. Johan has told Esther from the beginning about Marianne, and she responds with gut-wrenchingly stoic calm.  In a world in which others – including God – are always placed before the self, the answer is not obvious or easy.  Couched in the austere beauty of Reygadas’ filmic syntax, this story aches for a resolution, which it seems can only be delivered by a miracle. 

The Northwest Film Forum has been so bold to claim that “if you only see one film in ANY cinema this year, this must be it.” I’d have to say I agree. So did the Jury at Cannes, which awarded a joint Jury Prize to Silent Light and Persepolis

Silent Light plays at Northwest Film Forum March 27-April 1 at 7 & 9:30pm, and April 2-7 at 9:30pm.



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