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Film Review

Silent Light

Carlos Reygadas, a gifted but little known Mexican film maker (Sangre), has created one of the most beautiful films that I have ever seen. Nearly every scene in Silent Light, starting from a long take of a sunrise on a plain framed by silhouetted trees, to the last scene, a sunset at the same location, is ravishingly beautiful. The story is an old one: a happily married man with 7 children falls in love with another woman, and the consequences of that love. Johan, a successful Mennonite dairy farmer, lives in a small rural Mennonite community in northern Mexico. His children, all gorgeous, the eldest a daughter of about 20, to the year or so old baby, are very loving and caring for each other. His wife, Esther, is attractive, clearly a good mother and partner, yet unhappy. The entire family is introduced at breakfast, with all bowing their heads, giving thanks to God. A few younger ones fidget, but it is a genuine thanks. There is a reserve here, with little talk or laughter at the table, yet a palpable sense of love. They live the Mennonite life, with deliberately plain and simple furnishings, but not deprived. Unlike the Amish, their religious cousins, the Mennonites accept modernity and use electricity and automobiles.

Each member has various tasks, which they all begin to do after breakfast. Johan is left alone at the kitchen table, stops the wall clock, sits down again, put his head in his hands, and begins to sob. He is concerned with ethical behavior, does not wish to lie to his wife, so has told her about his attraction and affair with the other woman. The other woman, Marianne, is plain but striking, runs a small restaurant, and appears to be a good person as well. Johan is haunted by his attraction to Marianne, tries to stay away, but cannot. On a trip into town, he meets Marianne, almost by accident, and they go to a room near her restaurant. Each undresses the other, but shot so that we never really see their entire bodies. They make love with the camera focused on their faces, now drenched with sweat. Even in this wonderful scene, the camera is chaste. In an earlier scene, the cows come into the barn to be milked. They know their places and go immediately into their stalls, waiting to be milked. The scene is wonderful. I stayed at a Mennonite diary farm in Pennsylvania last November, and it was exactly like that. Their tails are held up with clips, the suction milking cups are attached to their teats, and their milk is suctioned into a small refrigerated tank, awaiting the milk tanker.

The director focuses on their daily life, as when the entire family goes to a small pool with spring, for a communal bath. It is one of the most loving scenes, again very chaste (everyone keeps either trunks or a shift on), with the older children washing the younger children, then swimming. The bath had a Garden of Eden quality, as does much of their lives. But Esther is clearly very hurt by her husband's affair with Marianne, and expresses it in a quiet but ferocious way when they are driving together. Then something happens, which leads the film in a entirely different, and surprising direction. Not to spoil the suspense, but it is allegorical and powerful.

The pace of Reygadas' film is languid, but never boring. The cinematography is exquisite, clearly done by a master, with often very long takes set against the flat, austere rural background. The title functions on at least several levels: there is no music whatsoever, and often we hear the background animal noises, such as cows mooing or dogs barking. The actors seems not to be acting, and apparently all of the characters are played by the Mennonite members of that community, including the children. I cannot remember another recent film like Silent Light. It is transcendent, lovely in every way, yet with a power and intensity that few other films achieve. Silent Light is reminiscent of early Bergman films, but in color. And unforgettable, in the best sense. Carlos Reygadas is a genius/artist and has produced a masterpiece. I saw it last week at the Film Forum in Manhattan with word that it will eventually open here. If so, don't miss it on the big screen.

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