A starry sky turns into a stunning seven minute time-lapse shot of sunrise over a Mexican landscape, announcing the beginning of Silent Light, winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. Its overarching themes may suggest, partially truthfully, a Bergman-esque exploration of the soul; indeed, the title appears a conflagration of two of Bergman’s “Faith Trilogy”, namely Winter Light and The Silence. But although the film owes much to the late Swede, there is also the quiet sadness of Ozu at play here, as well as the austere natural beauty of the best of Terence Malick, and a series of superbly understated performances from its non-professional cast make Silent Light a beautiful, delicately balanced human drama.
The most important introduction to the film is to explain its setting; the location is rural northern Mexico, but the story focuses on a small Mennonite community, God-fearing folk who speak Plautdietsch – a kind of cross between Dutch and German. Early on we see middle-aged farmer Johan and his family around the dinner table, locked into a long, silent grace-giving before eating, dressed in their customary Ahmish-like garb, the only sound the repetitious ticking of the wall-clock. There is a visible tension between Johan and his wife Esther. After dinner, Johan is left alone at the table and starts to cry uncontrollably. We soon discover why; Johan has been having an affair with a neighbour, Marianne, whom he believes to be his true love, not Esther. But he is torn between this newly-found love and his religious and domestic ties to his wife. He discusses as much with his father, who tells him it is the work of the devil; Johan himself counters that it is God’s will.
The setup appears to be a straightforward melodrama, but director Reygadas does not play it this way; instead of heated arguments, stormings out and moments of blind rage, what we get instead is a melancholy inner torment on Johan’s part, perhaps repressed by the environment and religion that he is situated within. Similarly with the two women – neither Esther and Marianne rant or rave, but seem to be quietly haunted, and saddened by the situation.
Reygadas manages to coax some wonderful performances from his cast, who are all assembled from real-life Mennonite communities, all natural Plautdietsch speakers, giving their roles an added level of authenticity. If some of the peripheral characters are perhaps not entirely comfortable in front of the camera, the same cannot be said about the leads, who undergo close scrutiny from the camera during the film’s two hours. Canadian novelist Miriam Toews perhaps has least to do as the stilted, quiet Esther, until one moment of pure emotion in the poruing rain – her outpouring of grief all the more powerful for the fact that up to that point she had been so distant. Maria Pankratz is a sensual but cautious Marianne, while Cornelio Wall is fantastic as the emotionally torn Johan.
What follows in the story should not to be revealed to those who have yet to see it, but it is surprising. Some may baulk at what happens in the final ten or so minutes, but I feel that the film earns the right to do what it gives us; others may not. This is decidedly arthouse fare – long, lingering shots, some scenes stretched out for much longer than really necessary, and the occasional lapse into Lars Von Trier-dom will be enough to put off a significant portion of a mainstream audience. But stick with it, and it provides rich rewards.