Directed by Carlos Reygadas. 2007.

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In 2006 a reviewer in a Sunday newspaper informed us that the terrific Belgian film The Child was “really just a French version of Cathy Come Home”. The same paper (though a different reviewer) now tells us that Silent Light is “the kind of film favoured by those who are basically disdainful of movies”. The truth is, Silent Light is a stunning film for those who love movies.

Following Japon and Battle in Heaven, neither of which appealed to me, Carlos Reygadas’ third feature is a mesmerising drama set in the Mennonite community of northern Mexico, with members of the community, non-actors all, playing the main parts. The dialogue is in the archaic Dutch-German language which they speak, and, for the first 90 minutes, is a simple story of a middle-aged family man agonising over his adulterous relationship with another woman in the community. Then there is an unexpected tragedy, followed by what is a virtual remake of the miraculous last scene of Carl Dreyer’s 1955 classic Ordet.

The newspaper reviewer mentioned above simply cannot see that Silent Light, and the way it is shot, is what a grown-up movie is meant to be. The first 5 minutes are an extraordinary time-lapse sequence of the skies from night to sunrise, the soundtrack filled with sounds of the waking natural world; the last 5 minutes are the reverse (sunset to night). If people prefer pointless cgis and rapid-cut editing, so be it; but they are depriving themselves of the experience of what cinema can do.

The drama plays itself out against the background of the wide-open landscapes of the region, the landscape not just of the farmlands but also of the actors’ faces, largely expressionless, almost trance-like (melodramatics would ruin a film like this, and there is no background music to tell us how we should be reacting). The scenes between the central character and his non-judgemental father, played by a real-life father and son, are particularly moving.

Several scenes, incidental to the basic plot, are specially memorable, such as the magical extended sequence of the children playing in the lake. But it is the final scene, the near-remake of Ordet, which will provoke the most argument and discussion. The “miracle” itself is perhaps less convincing than that of Dreyer’s film, not because of how it is shot but because of the context; it could conceivably be interpreted as the farmer’s fantasy. (The director has said in an interview that it is more Sleeping Beauty than Ordet). In the length of time Reygadas holds what is virtually a still-life shot he is daring almost to the point of parody; almost, but not quite. One mark of a great director is to know when to cut (see, for example, the so-called “pillow-shots” at the end of scenes in Ozu’s later films).

It is certainly the case that, to tell this story, Silent Light’s 127 minutes could be cut by an hour. But what would be the point of losing so much of its hypnotic visual and aural magic? Do try to see what, for me, is the best new release of 2007.

Alan Pavelin
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