A redefinition of insufferable, writer-director Carlos Reygadas’s nearly two hour and twenty minute non-epic, which is about a farming community of blond Europeans who’ve migrated to northern Mexico, finds poetry in such things as a John Deere tractor parked in a garage. See how tall and imposing the tractor is –- it’s so magnificent, why doesn’t someone take it for a spin, the movie seems to ask. Reygadas, somewhat like Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny, shows a fondness for photographing gray storm clouds and two-lane blacktops through the wide enclosure of a pick-up truck windshield. No one can accuse Reygadas of not being a visual stylist: Silent Light opens with a genuinely dazzling long take of the dark heavens, as starry night yields in circling, tilting camera motions to an ochre sunrise infiltrating the distant horizon, and then to the gradual dawn of day, as red clouds fade to white. The sound effects that accompany this, of cows lowing, are superb.
It’s the human element that escapes Reygadas. He can’t create characters, and he can’t tell a story. The story he tries to tell feels like a rejected draft of a doomed collaboration between Annie Proulx and Ingmar Bergman, say, a hardscrabble prairie version of Scenes from a Marriage, albeit told entirely from the husband’s point-of-view.
We meet the family in a lengthy, almost silent breakfast prayer, silent except for the loud, Bergman-esque tick-tock of a wall clock, and identifiable as prayer only by slightly bowed heads and a sudden, punctuating, “Amen!” The jowly, overalls-clad farmer Johan (Cornelio Wall) and his Scandinavian-featured brood commence with eating their corn flakes, yet once the children leave for school, and his wife (Miriam Toews, who vaguely resembles Liv Ullmann and has apparently been instructed to ape her mannerisms) takes off, Johan sits alone at the table toying with a spoon, then begins to weep. He’s positioned in the center of the frame, and when the camera slowly pulls in toward him, it’s the kind of stock, art-film cliché that’s meant to indicate his tortured soul suffers deeply.
At one point, after they’ve been shampooing their children’s hair in a pond, Johan remarks, “You’ve always been so good at making the soap, Esther.” His taciturn spouse responds to the compliment by allowing a single tear to fall. Almost everything in Silent Light feels as rigorously posed as this exchange, save for the peculiar freak touches that Reygadas will whip up. For instance, he includes a couple of superfluous musical interludes. In one of them, an American wearing a “Ford Country” t-shirt that has a deer’s head emblazoned behind an SUV invites Johan’s children into his van to watch black-and-white reruns of Jacques Brel singing cabaret. In another, Johan begins to warble a Tejano ditty, leaps in his truck, and drives around and around in circles while leering out the window at a Stetson-sporting best buddy. Reygadas’s “good times” are as phony as his Eurocentric cribbing from other directors and as parched as the unpaved red clay roads Johan’s truck dusts up.
And what does the title Silent Light signify? Could it be the gold geometric sunspots that shine like miniature crooked halos in the flaxen crowns of Johan and his mistress, a woman with a face like deep dish peach cobbler, as the two kiss endlessly in extreme close-up?
If this sounds horrible, well it is, and the mood at Whitsell Auditorium, where the movie press-screened yesterday, seemed to be one of unanimous dislike. There have been bombs, to be sure, scattered here and yonder in the festival, but I hadn’t seen a film until this one where the audience, be it Silver Screen members or ticket-buyers, rose up in such collective relief (to the democratic sounds of inappropriate laughter) when a picture ended. Yes, I know Silent Light won a Cannes Jury Prize, but I think the derisive reaction it met with here is the more honest response.
Originally published in Willamette Week.
Silent Light plays at the Portland International Film Festival on Sunday, February 17 at 7:00 pm (Whitsell Auditorium) and again on Tuesday, February 19 at 8:30 pm (Regal Broadway Cinemas).