Mexican new wave auteur/provocateur Carlos Reygadas' latest portent of emotional decimation, Silent Light, is far and away the directors most ambitious work while simultaneously acting as if his most subtly becalming. Opening with Reygadas' gingerly swirling camera, reminiscent more of Tarkovsky or Angelopoulos than his own typically up-paced New Wave compatriots, we watch as the sun rises and day breaks on a lonely farm somewhere in what we assume is Mexico. As the morning slowly blacks out the nocturnal strains, we hear the ever-growing roar of mysterious beasts. What is this place we have come to? This alien place? A tranquil scene is soon invaded by the loud aching moans of unknown beasts. Where has Reygadas taken us this time? What strange naked wilderness is this? Only after a long while do we realize these "screams" are the anguish of cows upon this farmland. A seeming requiem of cows. More painful to hear than one would ever think. This opening salvo sets the mood for the film which is to follow. A sorrowful look at a small Mennonite community in rural Mexico and the love torn farmer that is at its epicenter. The eye of his own tragic storm.
Spoken in German (or at least some sort of Germanic Mennonite dialect) with a few glimpses of Spanish, Reygadas' film, with its looping, pervasively aloof camera, is essentially a love triangle playing out in the ever-staid world chastination. An slowly powering whirling dervish of a film wherein elation and anguish reside within the same scene, the same moment. It is in the work of this proclaimed L'enfant terribles that we see this pain and joy combine so insistently that we can no longer tell the two apart. He has created moments meant to shock, but also moments meant to show the ugly naked truth so often found just below the surface of happiness. In Reygadas' debut feature, the perplexedly titled Japón, we are struck in the face with the vision of an old crone, wrinkled, withered and hunched - an old peasant beast as it were - and we watch with a perverse eye as she is fucked every which way to Sunday. In his second film, the Buñuelesque Battle in Heaven, we are handed, right out of the gate, a vision of fellatio. We see a young, sexy woman
giving head to her fat, ugly, beastly chauffeur, his face as inexplicably stoic and somber as if he were dead and in the ground.
Visions of pained pleasure strewn about his films, Reygadas, in his third film now, hands us what may very well be his, as jaded and backhanded complimentary as it may sound, most joyous film yet. Here we watch as Johan and his mistress Marianne make love in the dark secret rooms of their shame. Neither one ugly. Neither one seemingly unpleasured. It is as if Reygadas' own demons have gone away and he has now allowed us to glimpse something akin to pleasure. Still claustrophobic as ever - Reygadas' camera almost becoming a part of these lover's sweat-drenched bodies as it swerves and squirms over them as their bodies do the same beneath it. And it is still uncomfortable as these lovers hide from their own community, writing and fucking in hidden shadowy sin. It may be much more Epicurean than his other two films (there are flashes of elation in his first two works, but only in a purely spiritual way) but don't let Reygadas fool you. He is still the miserablist he always has been, just now he is a sentimentalist on top of it.
With that in mind, somewhere along the way, Silent Light transforms from a rather quiet piece of endurance cinema to an homage to Dreyer's Ordet, replete with a nature equals spirituality mindset. Though much more ambiguous than the stalwartly religious Dreyer work, Silent Light nonetheless handles its subject of faith and belief with a tireless hand at both the camera and at the helm. We see the miserable but we also see the hope of eternal life shining, like a silent light I suppose, somewhere in the distance. Near the end of the film, Reygadas brings back the agony of those bemoaning cows, only now it is his protagonist Johan that cries out in devastating anguish. We are forced to listen to his loud aching moans, and it is even more tormenting because now, whether rightly or wrongly, we have come to feel for this man. The pangs of devastation no longer belong to a faceless creature in the distance, but instead to this wretched man we see before us. No matter the harrowing beauty of Reygadas' spiraling, vacillating camera or his use of light as psychological tormentor, it is the pure unadulterated emotional ride of this film which gives it such grandiose power beyond anything - cinematically virtuosic as they each may be - the filmmaker has ever attempted before. [12/19/08]