Overstretched and dull, Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light is a thoroughly unrewarding portrait of a Mennonite father of seven grappling with infidelity and his place in life. Set in rural Mexico, Johan (Cornelio Wall) lives with his wife Esther (Miriam Toews) and their large family, doing what Mennonites do—rising before dawn, saying grace, and tending the fields. But unbenownst to his wife, Johan is having an affair with Marianne (an impressive Maria Pankratz in her film debut), one of his suppliers, and grapples daily with what to do…and what God would have him do. Torn between the vividness of this fresh figure and his familial duties, he looks to his father (a preacher), his co-worker, and the almighty for help in finding his way. It’s Bergman-esque in its topic, story, and themes, but certainly not in its execution, which is full of potholes, and as enjoyable as watching paint dry.
Reygadas is clearly gifted with the camera—there are many beautiful stand-alone shots, such as the opening sunrise that lets us start our day with the family, and a tender hand-holding moment between Johan and Marianne that recalls Before Sunrise and In the Mood for Love. But as talented as Reygadas may be, he’s equally caught up in his own artsy-fartsyness, and his clear admiration for directors such as Kiarostami & Sokurov leads to error upon error. Time and again, shots linger for about 20-30 seconds too long (the first onscreen encounter-and-kiss between Johan and Marianne is perhaps the most egregious example, though far from the sole offender) without adding anything at all thematically. This is particularly problematic because Reygadas elects to shoot much of Silent Light from a distance and forego a score of any kind, leading to a very detached emotional experience. Coupled with the elongated takes, the film quickly becomes banal and uninteresting, with none of the spice and life of Bergman’s similar spiritual quests of self-discovery. The cinematography is wonderful in and of itself, but that’s not enough to sustain a picture.
Reygadas’s pretension shows through in other ways as well—flies constantly land on people’s faces without being swatted away, for no apparent reason other than it seems “poetic.” His handling of the children—especially a lovely moment of bathing in the lake—is drastically superior to that of the adults, and unfortunately, the kids make up a fraction of substantive screentime. By the time the climactic sequence rolls around, disengagement has set in with full force, not to mention a direct conflict between the religious symbolism of the moment and the spoken reason given. The ending further muddies the water, tossing a supernatural aspect into the mix that feels completely out of place (Persona, on the other hand, handles this blend effortlessly). Ultimately, Silent Light drags on about 45 minutes too long, and feels like little more than cobbled-together moments from superior filmmakers, though it does hint at a director capable of helming a great work if he can rein himself in and substantially tighten things up.