Saturday, February 21, 2009
From time to time, I'm at a complete loss to understand a film's critical appeal. Silent Light, a 2007 film by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas recently released here in the US, dazzled the international film circuit, culminating with the Jury Prize at Cannes. Martin Scorsese exclaimed "I was amazed by Silent Light – the setting, the language, the delicacy of the interactions between the people on screen, the drama of redemption. And most of all by Carlos Reygadas’s extraordinarily rich sense of cinema, evident in every frame." NY Times film critic Manohla Dargis loved it so much that she saw it three times, and her colleague A.O. Scott listed it as his second favorite film of 2008. The accolades go on and on....
Silent Light examines the effects of an extra-marital affair on a secluded German Mennonite community in the heart of Mexico. Or at least it pretends to. Johan, a blond-haired, blue-eyed farmer, husband, and father of 5, falls in love with the young, spindly, Roman-nosed Marianne, who works as a waitress at a local diner. The mix of religious fundamentalism, sinful immorality, and cultural isolation spells the ingredients for a delicious existential epic, and in the hands of, say, Bergman, we might have feasted on just that. But Reygadas proves to be a less experienced chef, and instead of a meaty tome, we're left with a bland disaster - an immature exercise that places form over content, brushes its potential for spiritual crisis in only the most tangential ways, and ends with what I can only think of as an outright ripoff of Dreyer's Ordet masquerading as homage.
In the entire film, there were only two scenes that actually worked for me: the very first, and the very last. And neither of these scenes contain any human actors, or any narrative whatsoever. These scenes are beautiful, even haunting, time-lapse single-takes of sunrise and sunset, respectively. The slow pan and steady zoom, the enveloping sounds of night, the growing (or diminishing) photographic clarity - for all their transcendent glory, neither of these scenes actually add anything to the film's "story," such as it is. They might as well have been scenes from a high-def Nat Geo nature documentary.
Between these two scenes are two and half-hours of sheer torture. Somewhere along the way, Reygadas must have forgotten that a film like this needs a script, dialogue, tension. Without this, it's an empty exercise in form - and an immature one at that. We're bounced between various photographic techniques, which on their own might make for a short, interesting study in perspective, but which together simply deny a unifying aesthetic to what little story remains.
Perhaps I simply lack the appropriate film education to appreciate Silent Light, which in J. Hoberman's words, is "distinguished by its formal rigor." But then, isn't film (or art in general) supposed to transcend technique - isn't art a creative expression of the soul? Or is it simply a formal exercise?