There's a lot to like visually in SILENT LIGHT, the third film from writer/director Carlos Reygadas (shown right) after Battle in Heaven and Japón. You may wonder, as I did, if the English title is some play-on-words of one of our favorite Christmas carols (every time I speak the film's name my tongue initially wants to form an "n" to begin that second word). In retrospect, the entire movie seems a bit like a play-on-something-or-other because, when this viewer, at least, encounters a Reygadas movie, there is always a missing link: The whole refuses to coalesce. I will continue seeing each new film because there are always benefits. Here, they arrive via precise, often pristine visuals, and a combination of place, people and situation that we are not likely to encounter again. (As for the movie's outcome, I am quite sure we will not encounter its like again, but more on that only when you have seen the film.)
Evidently there is quite a large Mennonite community in Mexico, and if the behavior of the group shown here is anything close to true (Reygadas and his cast certainly make it appear so), the way these people handle certain difficult situations seems exemplary. The movie's theme is infidelity, upon which recent films as different as Ghost Town, Baghead and The Women (and probably another dozen quickies in the past month), have hung their hat. But none hangs on a rack quite like that provided by Señor Reygadas. From the beautiful, almost beatific look of the film, I would guess this is by far the man's highest-budget endeavor -- perhaps one-half of the dry cleaning bill for the uniforms worn in Valkyrie. His compositions (cinematography by Alexis Zabe) are lovely (the opening scene, which, in reverse, also ends the film, is memorable and then some), and his pacing, though snail-like, seems quite appropriate.
Even when the "events" (all two of them) occur, the look and pace of the movie do not vary. Nor does the filmmaker choose to elaborate on the result of what has just happened (trust me: one of these events is a hum-dinger that most other directors might choose to build an entire movie around). Instead, we must assume that life has simply continued. The sun sets, the sun rises, and so on. This is a bit too simple for even a dolt like me, who can imagine some of these Mennonites rising to their feet at the sight and sound of event number two and -- briefly, at least -- being thrown for a loop. If this happens, Reygadas makes certain we're not privy to it, for it might spoil the quiet pace and peaceful visuals. Yet if this film is really about "faith," it might be nice to explore the subject a bit more fully.
About those visuals, I also have a complaint. Because most of the film is so precise, so elegantly composed and lighted, what in the world is going on in two of the scenes in which the camera catches an immense number of shards of what is called refracted -- or is it reflected -- light? You can see one such shard on the leading man's neck in the shot below: Imagine them filling a third of the screen. When this happens, the colored lights call such attention to themselves, it's as though they're screaming "Wrong!" at the top of their visual lungs. Were not so much of Reygadas' movie so carefully conceived, this might not matter. We’re used to seeing these shards elsewhere in films but not in such a carefully controlled film environment as this. Could these moments be intentional? (And if so, what was the point: to remind us that we are watching a camera at work?) I doubt it, so why did not Reygadas or cinematographer Zabe move the camera a bit to avoid these silly circles of colored light? Well, maybe you had to be there.
As usual with the work of Reygadas, I am giving a mixed review. Will I see his next film, whatever it might be? I hope so. He's a filmmaking force to be reckoned with -- even if this means putting on a pair of critical boxing gloves and going a round or two.
Silent Light opens tomorrow, January 7, at NYC's Film Forum.