Thursday, November 8, 2007

NYFF: Silent Light

With every great rise in a “national cinema,” there are always essential directors and artists hidden beneath the enormous popularity of the so-called premiere directors. The recent Mexican New Wave has boasted three fabulous talents and pushed their top notch directors into Hollywood success. Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (“Babel”, “21 Grams”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) have transitioned into highly regarded successes in the industry. Guillermo Del Toro moved from Hollywood back to Mexico to create his monstrously successful Spanish/Mexican co-production “Pan’s Labyrinth” and is lined up to return to Hollywood. At the same time, director Carlos Reygadas (“Battle In Heaven”, “Japon”) has worked alongside these directors without being pushed over the border and into the American industry. While his work has not been as economically viable, therefore not as widespread, as the others Mexican works, Reygadas is an equally important director with extraordinary depth and range. Reygadas’ new film “Silent Light,” which has been submitted as Mexico’s selection for Academy Award consideration and was the highlight of the New York Film Festival, deepens Reygadas’ art and should help establish him as one of the premiere directors of the Mexican New Wave.

“Silent Light” opens with the greatest opening shot since Bela Tarr’s stunning opening to “Werckmesiter Harmonies.” The eight minute shot starts staring into a sky full of stars and rotates around into daybreak on the horizon. The shot ends and transitions into more solitude before the silence is broken by the word “Amen.” This opening sequence establishes Reygadas’ change in tone from his earlier works. However, the film is far from muted and finds Reygadas’ characteristic provocations through the drastic changes in character and contains moments that are equally stunning as the opening for “Battle In Heaven” which showcases an attractive young women giving felatio to a fat, uninspired older man.

“Silent Light” has been deemed a more mature work for Reygadas and, while this seems to me an unfounded back handed compliment regarding Reygadas’ prior films, it certainly seems to be a move, in general, to more refined filmmaking. While there is still a fair amount of experimentation, the seemingly conventional feel comes from the more clear cut story that “Silent Light” tells. Johan, the head of a simple Mennonite farming family, is married to Esther. However, there is trouble on the horizon w
hen Johan breaks down into tears after telling Esther that he loves her at the table. Johan is in love with another woman named Marianne who he admits is his “natural woman,” but is afraid to leave Esther because it will hurt her. Johan constantly tries to dodge the fact that it would effect him so deeply, but his religious struggle is key in realizing his desperation.

There is something mystical about the relationship between Johan and Marianne when they are together. Johan and Marianne slowly undress each other, taking time to realize the beauty of their partner. After they sleep together, each bead of sweat on Johan’s face is astonishingly clear. His soul seems to be seeping out of his body, when Marianna tells him that peace is stronger than love and Johan predicts that there will be more pain to come before he finds peace and happiness. Marianne explains that being with Johan is the saddest and happiest time of her life; she has been shut out of her family, but has possibly found her perfect man. The transgression and moral battle is placed squarely on Johan’s shoulders.

Set in a northern Mexican Mennonite community, cast with local non-professional actors, and becoming the first film ever told in the medieval German dialect called Plautidiectsch, “Silent Light” may sound like incredibly non-commercial filmmaking, but the astounding build and emotional resonance of the film’s final act showcases Reygadas’ “maturity” and ability to combine many unique elements without any of them overshadowing the work. The tone may seem lighter and Reygadas may appear to be drifting from his “provacateur” status, over which critics have harshly divided, however, “Silent Light” still manages to contain Reygadas’ classic audaciousness in its quiet moment of revelation. It is in this slight shift that Reygadas may finally find commercial interest in his work, while still maintaining the elements that make him a quintessential filmmaker.

“Silent Light” is the kind of film that the New York Film Festival and, indeed, any great film festival need. Though it may not be as risky a choice as some would like, recognizing previously overlooked films such as Reygadas’ “Battle in Heaven” or Pedro Costa’s “Colossal Youth,” the selection of “Silent Light” signals the selection committees nod of approval to the work of Reygadas. While the approval of “the committee” may signal a deeper problem about the film industry’s frustrating commercialism and unwillingness to take distributive risks, the festival’s commitment to showcasing great films, commercial studio pictures or otherwise, allows a film like “Silent Light” and Reygadas’ work to be written about and given serious thought and opened up to an intelligent and insightful audiences. Whether it is reflected the the festival’s selection or not, for my money, “Silent Light” brings to fruition and seals Reygadas as not only one of the premiere directors of the emerging Mexican New Wave, but also as one of the most interesting and crucial voices in modern world cinema.

by James Hansen

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really like to find people that love this movie as much as i love it. I have seen it twice and i could see it many more times. Thanxs, i think your review is great.
BTW i didnt like battle in heaven