REVIEW: DVD Release: Silent Light

Film: Silent Light
Release date: 23rd August 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 136 mins
Director: Carlos Reygadas
Starring: Elizabeth Fehr, Cornelio Wall, Miriam Toews, Maria Pankratz, Jacabo Klassen
Genre: Drama
Studio: Palisades Tartan
Format: DVD
Country: Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany

Carlos Reygadas’ multi award-winning picture has found worldwide critical acclaim and can count Martin Scorsese, who described it as “a surprising picture, and a very moving one as well,” amongst its admirers. The film deals with immediate impact that an affair has on a family, as well as the deeper moral implications that choosing one partner over another can have.

Silent Light tells the story of Johan (Cornelio Wall), a Russian Mennonite living in Mexico with his wife Esther (Miriam Toews) and their children.

From the beginning of the film, it is apparent that there is a tension between Johan and Esther, and we soon learn that Johan has been conducting an affair with a woman named Marianne.

Johan is a deeply religious man, but his faith in God is called into question as he begins to wonder whether it is morally correct to stay with Esther and honour his wedding vows, or to follow his heart and be with Marianne, who is better suited for him, and for whom he has deeper feelings of love.

Torn between his love for his family and his love for Marianne, as the story develops, we discover that it is not only Johan who is so deeply affected by his dilemma…

What is initially so striking about Silent Light is its subtlety. In the opening moments, we see a sky gradually turn from night to morning, as the sun crawls up from beyond the horizon. These opening shots provide some insight into what makes Silent Light such a beautifully visual piece of cinema - Reygadas’ use of natural environments means every shot is rich with stunning Mexican countryside; its harsh, uncontrollable wildness mirroring the feelings that penetrate each of the main characters’ thoughts. The cinematography is stunning, with each shot carefully considered and effective.

To frame a film with such deliberate and apparent symmetry can often lead to the world of the film seeming unreal, but Reygades manages to create several shots in which the focal point is perfectly centred without seeming contrived, adding to the aesthetic beauty of his piece rather than detracting from it.

The camera is not used simply to create a visual work of art, however, as it also expresses feelings which the characters clearly struggle with, such as a conversation between Johan and his father in which neither man can look the other in the eye. In a film with so little dialogue, such moments are vital insights into what the characters are feeling.

The camera is also used to instil in the viewer the general feeling of awkwardness that surrounds the film, and shots will often last just slightly longer than we feel they should in order to make us feel uncomfortably voyeuristic. This can be seen at the beginning of the film, when a shot of Johan crying seems to go on for a very long time; or in a kiss between Johan and Marianne, which not only defies filmic conventions in the length of time it is afforded on screen, but in its strange passionlessness.

Subtlety is key not only to the success of Silent Light as a visual piece, but to its storyline as well. With subject matter such as this, the possibility of dialogue lapsing into the melodramatic always remains and this is something Reygadas is keenly aware of. In many scenes, characters say very little to one another, and the hurt that Johan causes his wife is felt, for the most part, as a haunting presence which affects her very soul, sapping any energy and rigour from her, and transforming her into a shell of a woman. This actually proves to be more affecting than if she reacted angrily or with violence.

The uniqueness of Esther’s reaction is suggestive of the uniqueness of their situation as, unlike most films which centre around an affair, Johan is completely open about his transgressions, letting his wife know each time he has been unfaithful. This leads to several heart rendering moments when the viewer cannot help but sympathise with Esther, such as a scene when they are giving one of their children a bath and Johan tells her that she is always good at making the soap that they use, which leads to Esther almost breaking into tears. It is in moments like this that Silent Light is at its most emotionally resonant, displaying how simple, everyday events become so irreversibly transformed when a wife’s faith in her husband is lost.

The only drawback of Reygadas’ refusal to ever allow his characters to raise their voices or express themselves emotionally is that this can occasionally lead to a detachment from what is happening, and cause us to feel strangely unaffected at what would seem to be critical moments in the film’s development. However, this possible stylistic flaw can be overlooked, as it is his avoidance of the sensational for the majority of the film that makes the ending one of the most surprising and powerful moments of any film in the last few years, one that immediately makes Silent Light demand to be seen again.

Beautifully shot and exquisitely framed, Silent Light is a visual masterpiece, one which is also ripe with subtle and touching displays of the pain and confusion of infidelity. The story may seem to drag towards the closing moments, but it is more than worth persevering with to feel the impact of its sensational ending. PK

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