Silent Light

October 12, 2007
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Review by Travis Kyker

  • There is an adage you and I have heard many times, which is that every day is a new miracle. I can never hear it without wondering about the underlying sentiment. What is really miraculous about a new day? The survival of our geological sphere through another night? The laws of nature continuing to function in the same invariable pattern they always have, eon after eon? Sunrises are beautiful, yes, but beauty need not upset the laws of the natural world to break into them. Is a new day really a miracle, deserving mention alongside the likes of Cana and Lazarus? Or is it a poor substitute for the real thing, a little miracle to the person for whom an actual act of God would be asking too much? Well-meaning intentions aside, “Today is a miracle” has the sound of someone so focused on a display of nice colors that they fail to see the dead rising from their graves.

    As it happens, Carlos Reygadas is more generous than I am. A Mexican filmmaker and prodigy following the likes of Bergman, Dreyer, and Tarkovsky, his notion of the miraculous is both broad and reverent, threading itself into the fabric of his film Silent Light with the awe of shattered doubt and the steady certainty of faith in equal measure. If you held skepticism as to the miracle present in every given day, the film’s first moments are quick to distill it. In a magnificent five-minute opener, Reygadas begins moments before dawn: looking up, a flood of stars still forming a cosmic current in the sky, before lowering the camera’s gaze to a distant horizon as the sun slowly floods the plain. It’s daringly beautiful enough to make you audibly gasp, and if you don’t, it’s doubtful whether you had a pulse to begin with — one way or another, you’re left breathless. The miraculous Reygadas reveals here is defined less in the grand physics or visual splendor of a sunrise than in an element of eternally unlikely selection: in a universe of infinite celestial alternatives, this is the tiny world chosen to host our tiny existence. The miracle of a new day is that, somehow, we are once again permitted to play our small, strange parts in such a world. 

    The narrative around which Silent Light orbits is as small and fundamental as you could find: Johan (Cornelio Wall), a Mennonite farmer living with his family in northern Mexico, is in love with another woman (Maria Pankratz). It is not a secret: his wife Esther (Miriam Toews) knows, and it is slowly devouring her; his father (Peter Wall) knows, and he insists it is on Johan’s shoulders to make the right decision. The drama is not centered on secrecy and lies, but on the simple, heavy weight of free will and the duty of choice: what does he want to do, what ought he to do, and is it possible that they are the same? In the first scene following the prologue, Johan sits at his kitchen table in obvious inner turmoil and the clock on the wall ticks forward; as he slowly breaks down into tears, it’s apparent that time is running out and quickly leaving him behind. The burden he carries is unique, only found at the cross-section between obedience and desire, when a man of faith knows his desire does not align with God’s. Johan recognizes the world is not a solipsistic playground of personal fulfillment, recognizes his part to play in it, yet cannot seem to silence the little voice telling him otherwise. “You’ve found your natural woman,” his friend glibly congratulates him, while Johan resists: “A brave man makes destiny with what he’s got.” Unsatisfied by Johan’s motion toward fidelity, his friend cautions him to “be careful not to betray yourself.” In essence, this is the conflict inside him between receiving and taking, submitting and asserting. 

    This same conflict manifests what might be the most familiar hypocrisy to the believer: the constant tug between what one believes and how one acts, the tension between ideology and praxis. It is the easiest thing in the world to preach; practicing it is another thing altogether. Often the most natural solution when confronted with the inconvenience of the Word is to simply shift it into a more comfortable shape, allowing obedience to remain intact and actions to remain unchallenged. Hardly any time after Johan resists his friend’s hedonistic advice, he falls victim to the very same temptation. “What’s happening to you is the work of the enemy,” a character cautions him. “I think it’s God’s doing,” Johan replies. Soon after, Johan’s father wonders whether his son’s trial of faith might not be “founded in something sacred, even if we don’t understand it.” None of these attempts at discerning God’s will are grounded in the context of His will at all, but the wills of hearts under the burden of sin, hearts willing to manipulate and mutate truth in order to better fit a false conception of it. The irony of such spiritual disconnect being present even in this community, one centered around a near-monastic way of life and devotion, highlights the pervasive disconnect between faith and works. The question is forced: how are these characters using ideology and dogma to distance themselves from God? How am I doing the same? One of my favorite moments in the film is Reygadas’ profoundly beautiful visualization of this idea. The shot begins close to Johan and his wife Esther, sitting on the bank of a river in conversation. When they finish and drift offscreen, the background of obscured color and foliage is left in a deep blur. Instead of adjusting focus, Reygadas lingers on the distorted image long enough to suggest some kind of significance, until finally dollying forward, slowly moving the camera closer and closer until a hazy flower is brought into sharp precision. 

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    The implication is clear: distance brings confusion. Proximity brings clarity. More often than not, God’s silence is not a signal of His absence, but an illusion of our own making brought about by our own small attempts at separation. 

    There is much that can be said about the film’s ending — how it enacts a violent interruption of human frailty, depicting the intervention of grace into men and women not strong enough to ask for it — but the less given away there, the better (although certain compositional and production design choices in the preceding moments will almost certainly clue in anyone who has ever seen Dreyer’s Ordet). On the other hand, it feels necessary to note the subtle yet deeply affecting redefinition (or, perhaps more accurately, the recontextualization) of love: what it means to love God, your wife, the man you are complicit in allowing to be unfaithful. It’s a staunchly non-modern assessment of love, placing value as it does more on the spiritual well-being of the giver and receiver than on, to utilize contemporary buzzwords, tolerating or supporting ill-informed choices. True love is not complicit in another’s failure, but active and confrontational. It holds those in its grasp responsible for their actions. In that vein, the idea of the miraculous which runs through the film reappears at the end in two ways. Trusting that the first is self-evident, I’ll suggest that the second is a foray into the question of our duty to ourselves and God, and the mystery in discerning that obligation. What are we to do in a world that, at times, seems so obviously beyond our control yet so silent on behalf of God? If it is true, as one character tells Johan, that “You are nothing in the face of this,” does that diminish the worth of virtue? 

    This is a recurring theme throughout the film, the idea of being swept along in something beyond human comprehension, almost frighteningly grand. Clocks consistently punctuate Silent Light’s significant images, characters muse on their futile desires to turn back time. In one of my favorite notes of unexplained mystery, Johan visits his parents’ house in the middle of harvest season and emerges minutes later to a snowy winterscape. Nearly all of these details are touched by notes of anxiety as to what it all means, what to make of it, what to do with it. If Silent Light’s characters seem perplexed by God’s silence, however, the film is perplexed by their deafness. A sunrise might not be a miracle in terms of defying the natural law, but is there not something inherently miraculous about the revelation demonstrated in such beauty? Protesting that God is silent as an excuse for one’s failure to follow Him is likely more indicative of the listener than the speaker. The film doesn’t resolve the paradox of free will and acts of man, but it repeatedly depicts the acts of God. Often those speak louder than words.

  • Release Date
    October 12, 2007
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