Strangely enough, following one post on how light — particularly the beautiful light in September — can affect photography and another on The Greatest Living Film Composers, I finally watched Silent Light — a film drenched in breathtaking images and natural lighting that has no music score. It’s one of those art films that was much discussed last year amongst cineastes but little seen by anyone outside of the international film festival circuit. As fall is often the season of slowing down and taking stock of your life, it could only be considered perfect timing that Netflix delivered it to my door just as we approached the autumnal equinox.
A Resurrection of Cinema
Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (Stellet Licht) is a direct descendent of silent film. One would suspect that at the end of the silent film era this is how the true artists — the Langs, the Dreyers, the Murnaus — mulled over this new ability to accompany their moving pictures with sound. How would they manipulate the sound to mirror the themes and motifs in their imagery? How would they tell their stories not only with what is heard, but with what isn’t heard? Can you imagine what they would’ve been able to accomplish in those early years had they the technology of today? Few modern filmmakers appreciate this contemplation and manipulation of sound for artistic purposes. Stanley Kubrick most certainly did. Terrence Malick, Werner Herzog and David Lynch do. So does Carlos Reygadas, and thanks to him, you no longer need to imagine what our early auteurs would’ve been able to achieve with modern methods.
In Silent Light, Reygadas creates one of the most astounding sound designs I have ever heard, awash in natural noise, the clamoring of manmade machinery and the near silent whispers of people speaking Plautdietsch. It evokes an otherworldly existence beyond what is known through the five senses with which humans are endowed.
Reygadas bookends his film with jaw-dropping, slowly panning images of a sunrise and a sunset that each last about six minutes. Only the cacophony of crickets, bellowing cows and the occasional bird call is used for accompaniment. This births a meditative trance that takes the viewer from the intimate close quarters of the terrestrial to the boundless realms of the extra-terrestrial.
In between these bookends is a story of a Mennonite community in Chihuahua, Mexico. Reygadas’ intimate depiction of their agrarian world is reminiscent of Ermanno Olmni’s 1978 masterpiece, The Tree of Wooden Clogs. He creates a deliberately slow pace to mirror the lifestyle of the Mennonites. There are times when the pacing becomes tedious, and I could’ve done without the scenes of people driving trucks and tractors, but overall it is meant to bring the viewer to a level of meditation similar to that of the Mennonites. By shutting themselves off from most of the outside world and maintaining a self-sufficient existence, the Mennonites lead lives rich in silent moments and contemplation of things greater than themselves. The Mennonites are as much tied to the land and to nature as they are to their immediate families and larger community. As we learn about a father’s extramarital affair, we see the emotional turmoil it causes him, his wife and his lover, yet somehow even through the worst of times they are able to shield it from their children.
Anyone who has seen Carl Dreyer’s 1955 Christian allegory Ordet will be able to divine the film’s outcome after a particularly tragic event. In some ways, it’s an act of faith on the viewers with this knowledge of Ordet that Silent Light will end this way, yet it’s still nonetheless miraculous when it finally happens. However, Reygadas seems to imply that is not any special knowledge or a faith in any god, but a faith in each other and humanity that enables communities like the Mennonites to accept and overcome great tragedies and allows them to keep their dignity through life, death and everything in between.
By using a simple narrative and universal symbols, Reygadas allows the audience to bring their own experiences and beliefs (or lack thereof) to the table. One need not be religious or spiritual to relate to the people in Silent Light, only human. It’s as much in our nature to doubt ourselves and question our feelings as it is to imagine the miraculous, to envision a life after death, to fathom the limitless…the impossible…nothingness.
For any human being, moments of silent light are essential. Yet, ironically, Silent Light is a very special film that needs to be recommended with caution. Some will naturally see it as a huge waste of time and I would not argue with them, while others will respond to the limitless possibilities surrounding interpretations of its meaning which I will claim is not religious. Reygadas’ film is only to be approached with care, patience and an open mind. And for those who have been claiming for years that cinema is dead…I present to you this moment of silence.
Written by David H. Schleicher
NOTE TO READERS: I somehow managed to overlook cinematographer Alexis Zabe in my original review. I wish to amend that here by posting a link to the Long Spaces blog where Zabe is given his due and more amazing screenshots from Silent Light can be found.