EmptyCANNES -- Writer-director Carlos Reygadas, the bad boy of Mexican cinema, is up to his old tricks in "Silent Light." But this time, he has hitched his austere and protracted style to an allegorical tale of subtle strength and depth.
Yes, amateur actors are coached to stare into space for long moments before delivering stiff dialogue with unnatural solemnity. But since the story takes place within an isolated minority community of Mennonites in northern Mexico, this makes sense: These are God-fearing people who shun emotional displays and speak in a Germanic dialect that hits the modern ear like a medieval language.
With "Silent Light," Reygadas should expand his audience considerably, albeit at festivals and in art houses. The long takes and studied silences still smack of pretension. An opening shot as the camera pans down from the night sky to capture dawn and the coming of a new day, while beautiful, does take six minutes. And that's just the movie's first shot.
The film's action can be summed up thusly: Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), a farmer and devout head of a large family, falls in love with another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz). Is this the work of the devil, or is he responding to his spiritual soul mate?
His dad, who is a preacher, sees the hand of the "enemy" in this situation. His friend, Zacarias (Jacobo Klassen), sees Marianne as his true natural woman. Johan does not believe the devil has anything to do with it; he holds himself responsible but is unable to repair his ways.
Johan has hidden none of this from his faithful and devoted wife Esther (Mariam Toews). So the relationship pits the women against one another even though neither has laid eyes on the other. Marianne is oddly sympathetic to Esther's pain; Esther says little until near the end, when the word "whore" escapes her lips.
Between the scenes where emotions heat up, Reygadas treats you to small documentaries on farm life: how cows get milked and how hay is harvested.
One scene takes place in fall, and the next has snow on the ground. Slowly, slowly, slowly though, "Silent Light" builds to an impressive climax. Perhaps the hand of God has been involved all along. The film certainly escapes from the carefully established reality of the Mennonite community, and the ending certainly gives that long pan down from the heavens a more profound meaning.
The stiffness of the performances, except from the children, who are just naturally wonderful, works extremely well in this context. These are people who put all feelings into their choice of words, not body language or vocal inflections. The formality of the language too sounds often funny but in the end conveys a kind of dignity and truthfulness.
"Silent Light," or "Stellet Licht" in the Plautdietsch tongue, continues to dwell within your mind long after the lights have come back up.
Mantarraya & Nodream Producciones with Bac Films
Writer-director: Carlos Reygadas
Producers: Carlos Reygadas, Jaimie Romandia
Director of photography: Alexis Zabe
Production designer: Nohemi Gonzalez
Editor: Natalia Lopez
Cast: Johan: Cornelio Wall Fehr
Esther: Mariam Toews
Marianne: Maria Pankratz
Father: Peter Wall
Mother: Elizabeth Fehr
Zacarias: Jacobo Klassen
Running time -- 142 minutes
No MPAA rating