Tartan Video // 2007 // 136 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // October 1st, 2009
An exploration of inner faith.
Carlos Reygadas (Battle in Heaven) has been getting a lot of attention in the international film community. His films are challenging and uncompromising, as well as glacially paced. Silent Light is, like the others, a film that will enchant serious viewers and critics, though is sure to put off casual moviegoers.
Johan (Cornelio Wall) is a Mexican Mennonite man with a farm, a wife, and several young children. He is also having an affair with a woman named Marianne (Maria Pankratz), which threatens to shatter his whole existence. He is startlingly honest about the affair with his friends and his wife Esther (the novelist Miriam Toews), but how can a man of faith live with this much sin and anguish?
Issues of personal faith are tough to handle on film, especially in a community like that of the Mexican Mennonites. This film does a great job of showing that personal struggle, perhaps as well as any film I've ever seen. It deals with secrets: those of Johan and the people he talks to. In a culture where excommunication is such a serious possibility, Johan's willingness to confront his feelings openly is a truly brave thing.
It's also an undeniably beautiful film. It opens with a gradual sunrise, with the sound of the animals in the background, light slowly filling the frame. Reygadas is clearly fascinated with the quality of light, as he creatively uses natural light throughout to highlight the beauty and ugliness of this cinematic world. It gives us the impression of being there, since each cut is long and contemplative, forcing us to imagine this life, so different from our own. There's no clear progression of events in the film, we are simply shown scenes with no sense of chronology. Once the annoyance of that wears off, it adds something to the film -- a sense that time doesn't work for the Mennonites the same way it works for everyone else.
Reygadas also draws great performances from his amateur actors. I can't imagine how hard it must have been to find actors fluent in Plautdietsch who were also willing to perform in a film at all, let along one that deals so frankly with sin and adultery. The performances lack polish, as expected, but they are sincere and avoid the awkwardness of many such performances.
At the same time, Silent Light is truly slow. It makes the film difficult to watch at times, especially with a duration of 136 minutes. I certainly found myself checking my watch often, and reaching for the fast-forward button a few times. Others, I'm sure, will not be as frustrated with the pacing, but the film needs to come with a fair warning. This is made even more blatant by the film's complete lack of music, so each sequence is either completely silent or blaring with background noise.
The other major problem is one that often occurs with realist filmmaking. While Silent Light feels like it's pushing towards some crucial conflict that will drive change in Johan's life, by the midway point we start to wonder if anything will happen at all. Perhaps nothing will be solved, and nothing will actually happen. This fear is allayed by the end of the film, but many viewers will have given up by this stage.
As is often the case with Tartan's DVD transfers, I have a few complaints here. The video transfer hasn't been mastered well for NTSC, and there is some distinctive jitter during horizontal panning. Some of the sequences are surprisingly soft as well, suggesting that the film could have been a lot clearer and sharper. For a film so obsessed with visual details, this soft look is a serious problem. The sound transfer is odd as well, though it's hard to tell whether it's part of the film's design. The surround channels are quite active during loud scenes, as we are assaulted from all sides with the sound of truck motors, tractors, or milking machines. The dialogue is clear enough, though, so it's more a question of strange mixing.
There are a few extras on the disc, including a production featurette, an interview, and some deleted scenes. For fans of the film, this will offer a way to dig a bit deeper into Reygadas' mind.
Although I can appreciate the still beauty of Silent Light, I will admit that I didn't much enjoy it. I suspect that most viewers will have similar feelings after the final frame has faded. The exception would be those who grew up in a similar situation and have doubts about the Mennonite way of life. Here, we get to see the minds of people who display an astonishing external stoicism, but are just as vulnerable and flawed as the rest of us. It's a tough, uncompromising portrayal of inner pain.
Silent Light is not guilty, but that doesn't mean I promise you'll
Review content copyright © 2009 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (German, Plautdietsch)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German, Plautdietsch)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (German, Plautdietsch)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site