Mennonites struggle with faith in the sublime Silent Light

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week, ahead of Easter, we’re looking at films about Christianity.

Silent Light (2007)

In the beginning, we’re told by the Bible, God created the heavens and the earth. It took him six days. Carlos Reygadas, the semi-benevolent deity who made Silent Light, accomplishes the task in about six minutes. Opening on a formless void, the film first adds twinkling stars and the Milky Way’s shimmery ribbon, then slowly tilts and rotates downward until a few branches can dimly be seen obstructing some of the starlight. Eventually, as the sun rises (much faster than it would in reality, yet with a deliberation rarely seen in movies), it’s possible to make out a rural landscape, accompanied by the sound of crickets chirping, then birds cheeping, then livestock lowing in the far distance. It’s not quite as explicit a cinematic Creation as Terrence Malick would offer just four years later, but Reygadas employs it to similar ends, juxtaposing the ineffable majesty of existence itself with the decidedly ordinary travails of a single family.

In this case, it’s a family of Mennonites living in Chihuahua, Mexico, though that’s not immediately clear. While we see them say grace (silently, save for a final “amen”) before eating, and they seem fairly pious in general, their denomination never gets mentioned; for a long time, all of the (minimal) dialogue is in what sounds like German, though in fact it’s a Mennonite dialect of German called Plautdietsch. Like the Amish in America, these people mostly keep to themselves, farming the land and bathing their kids in a nearby river. It’s an idyllic life, for those of a particular temperament, or at least, it would be, had patriarch Johan (Cornelio Wall), who dearly loves his wife, Esther (writer Miriam Toews), not fallen passionately in love with another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz). Johan isn’t sneaking around—he’s told Esther everything—but he’s tortured by his infidelity, even as he’s firmly convinced that Marianne is his true soulmate. He can’t stop seeing her, despite knowing that by openly doing so he’s killing Esther, perhaps quite literally.

As its stunner of an opening shot suggests, Silent Light—despite being set within a religious community—takes an implicit approach to synthesizing the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual. If Johan prays, he does so in complete silence. (We do see him, early on, in what looks like it could be an act of devotion crossed with an impending nervous breakdown.) When he desires counsel, he asks his literal father (Peter Wall, the actor’s real-life father), rather than his heavenly Father, what he should do. The film builds to a tragedy that’s followed by an honest-to-God miracle—one that pays homage to a Scandinavian classic from half a century earlier. (Naming it would constitute a major spoiler.) Unlike that film, however, in which God’s mercy is expressly sought, Silent Light chooses not to reveal the mechanism by which the impossible is made actual. In a secular context, it could easily be perceived as something woolier, like the power of love or regret or compassion—a mystical act of self-sacrifice. Reygadas chose this particular milieu for a reason, however, and those inclined to look beyond what can be seen will have no difficulty.

Anyone familiar with Reygadas’ other films—which include Japón, Battle In Heaven, Post Tenebras Lux, and Our Time—knows that he can be quite the provocateur. To his immense credit, he suppressed that impulse entirely this one time, allowing free rein to simple, achingly sincere gestures and feelings. Those are reinforced here by a formal approach that visually juxtaposes light and darkness, often to blinding effect. One early sequence begins by slowly pushing in through a shadowy garage door; tilts down to reveal mechanics working in a pit; jumps back 20 feet or so to reveal Johan standing at the door, hands on hips, peering into the murk; then cuts to a reverse angle from inside the building, with Johan now facing camera and framed against the landscape. It’s breathtaking, simply by virtue of each shot’s duration and the way that we’re thrust from one perspective to another. Later, we discover that a significant amount of time has passed when Johan and his father step from a house’s dark interior out into the snow, practically engulfed by its whiteness. Christians may well appreciate Silent Light on a level of their own, but it’s manna for anyone who kneels at the altar of sublime cinema.

Availability: Silent Light is currently streaming on Kanopy (from select libraries). It’s also available for digital rental and/or purchase via Vudu and MUBI.

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