Wednesday, January 02, 2008

52. Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' "Stellet licht (Silent Light)" (2007): Visually and aurally breathtaking cinema

Can light have sound? So what is silent light? Something surreal, somehow related to the Christian hymn Silent night? The intriguing answers are provided in the film to the patient, thoughtful viewer. This is not a film for the impatient viewer. “Starlight” (accessible cosmic wonders) begins and ends the film—silence dominates the soundtrack, except for crickets, lowing of cattle, and an occasional bird cry.

This opening shot sets the tone for a film made with non-professional actors (real life Mennonites from several countries, according to reports) . The film won the Jury’s Grand Prize at Cannes 2007. It is a spectacular film experience for any viewer who loves cinema. This is my first Reygadas film and I have become an admirer of this young man.

Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas writes his own scripts. He is one of the few filmmakers of importance today who does that—alongside Spain’s Pedro Almodovar and Japan’s Naomi Kawase.

Reygadas’ stunning movie Silent Light dwells on a collapsing marriage within a religious Mennonite community in Mexico, speaking not Spanish (the language of Mexico) but a rare European language (Plautdietsch) that mixes German and Dutch words, leading up to the eventual renewal of this fragile family. Reygadas begins the film with a 6-minute long time-lapse photography of dawn breaking to the sounds of nature and ends the film with twilight merging into the night.

The opening shot was lost on many in the audience as a noisy viewer kept talking three minutes into the film, unaware that the film was running, until I had to reveal this fact to him at the 12th International Film festival of Kerala. The film's opening shot was so stunning that after the 6th minute the audience who grasped what was happening began clapping, having savored the effect. The last time I recall a similar involuntary reaction from an audience was when Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi was screened decades ago in Mumbai at another International Film Festival.

There is something magical, supernatural in nature if we care to reflect on daily occurrences. There is a touch of director Andrei Tarkovsky in Reygadas’ Silent Light as he captures the magical, fleeting moments in life that all of us encounter but do not register. There is a touch of director Terrence Mallick’s cinema as he connects human actions with nature (a heartbroken wife runs into a glen and collapses trying to clutch a tree trunk). And there is a touch of director Ermanno Olmi in the endearing rustic pace of the film. Whether he was influenced by these giants of cinema I do not know—but many sequences recall the works of those directors.

That the film recalls Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) is an indisputable fact. Ordet was based on a play by a Danish playwright Kaj Munk. Reygadas film is based on his own script that almost resembles a silent film because of the sparse dialog. Both films are on religious themes, on falling in love outside marriage, and leading up to an eventual miracle. Reygadas uses these basic religious and abstract ingredients to weave a modern story that is as powerful as Dreyer’s classic work by adding the realistic and accessible components of nature—automated milking of milch cows (without milking, the cows would be in distress) and a family bathing scene—do seem to be included as daily occurrences that have a cyclical similarity to the main plot—the collapse and rebuilding of a marriage. Reygadas’ cinema invites the viewer to look at nature captured by the film and discover parallels to the story-line. This film is one of the richest examples of cinema today that combines intelligently a structured screenplay, creative sound management, and marvelous photography that soothes your eyes, ears and mind.

Early in the film, the “family” is introduced sitting around a table in silent prayer before partaking a meal. The silence is broken by the tick-tock of the clock. The children are obviously unaware of the tension in the room, except that they would like to eat the food in front of them. The adults are under tension. When the head of the family remains alone on the table (symbolic statement) he breaks into uncontrollable sobs. He gets up to stop the loud clock (symbolic) that evidently disturbed the silent prayer. This action becomes important if we realize that the clock never bothered the family silent prayers before. All is not well. Time has to stand still.

Composition of frames (see above) in the film remind you of Terrence Mallick—the balancing visuals of men and children sitting bales of hay on trailer—again recalling a cosmic balancing force in life

Both Silent Light and Ordet revolve around a miracle, where a woman’s love for a male lover and tears for his dead wife leads to calming a turbulent marriage. The film is not religious but the Mennonite world is religious. Religion remains in the background; in the foreground is love between individuals, lovers, husbands, wives, sons, parents, et al. What the film does is nudge the viewer to perceive a mystical, cosmic world, a world beyond the earth we live in, which is enveloped in love. There is a cosmic orbit that the director wants his viewers to note—a similar cyclical orbit to the erring husband driving his truck in circles as if in a trance on the farm. Mennonite children who are not exposed to TVs seem to enjoy the comedy of Belgian actor and singer Jacques Brel in a closed van. While Reygadas seems to be concentrating on the peculiarities of a fringe religious group, the universal truths about children’s behavior and adult behavior captured in the film zoom out beyond the world of Mennonites. They are universal.

The film begins in silence and ends in silence against a backdrop of stars in the night. The indirect reference to the Silent night (Stellet nacht) hymn is unmistakable. For the patient viewer here is film to enjoy long after the film ends. Reygadas' mastery of the medium is obvious. This is one of the most interesting films of the decade, but sadly will be lost totally on an impatient or distracted viewer.


CLNY said...

One of the best Mexican films of the year!!! Great review!!!

Anonymous said...

I loved this movie. I actually think this is my all time favorite movie. Your review put words on why i love this movie so much. Thank you

jyotsna said...

Ah!!!!!!!! it's really great.Dis is d movie that made me cry........Really a emotional romantic script!!!!!!!! You can download d full lenght of dis movie here
Download Stellet Litch movie

Guys, pls don't miss d chance.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, that was extremely valuable and interesting...I will be back again to read more on this topic.

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Jugu Abraham said...

Hi James,

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Murtaza Ali Khan said...

I finally watched it... it's the first film I have watched of Carlos Reygadas. Your analysis once again proved to be quite insightful... without it I would have surely struggled a lot. Every time I watch a movie that's recommended on your blog I realize how wrong I was in thinking that the contemporary cinema had lost its luster and glory. I just can't thank you enough for introducing me to a whole new world of contemporary cinema, helmed by the likes of Andrey Zvyagintsev, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Semih Kaplanoglu, Carlos Reygadas, etc. Btw, I had one query regarding Silent Light. Did the wife actually live or was it some kind of symbolism similar to the one Malick used in The Tree of Life at the end?

Jugu Abraham said...

My personal view is that most of Reygadas' cinema is symbolic and that applies to the wife as well. Carl Dreyer, on the other hand, was possibly presenting the alternate view, in his film. Wish I could talk to Reygadas, even though he is not comfortable with most critics. That is what I wish I could do with Malick, Zvyagintsev, Kawase, and Ceylan, too, as well, in that order.

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Like you interviewed Semih Kaplanoglu at the International Film festival of Kerala, I certain that you will get the opportunity to interview the others as well one of these years. I am yet to watch Dreyer’s Ordet (in fact, I am yet to explore any of his works)... but I am certain that it would serve to be an experience of a lifetime.