Thursday, January 15, 2009

STELLET LICHT (SILENT LIGHT): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Cornelio Wall, Maria Pankratz, Miriam Toews, Peter Wall, Jacobo Klassen, Elizabeth Fehr
Director: Carlos Reygadas
Country: Mexico
Language: Low German, Spanish (courtesy IMDb)
Runtime: 131 min.
Rating: *
Genre: Drama

        There is boring. There is numbing. There is sleep inducing. There is deadening. And then, there’s Silent Light. An elderly woman sitting besides me was pretty clueless what it was all supposed to mean, and I mention her for the precious life’s experience that is all her own. I walk into the film with the knowledge that it has been mentioned in numerous year-end Top 10 lists, came highly recommended, and most importantly invoked comparisons to a form of cinematic poetry that has been lost since Tarkovsky. I worship the great man, worship his films and their deep spiritual and emotional resonance. I’m a viewer who submits himself entirely, and is prepared to be one with a film. And I was in good presence too, with a cineaste ever willing to gnaw at the prospects that a film promises, and she was numbed. I felt like a part of me died inside. Silent Light, for all its ultra-obsession with perfectly symmetrical composition, feels more vacant than vacuum itself. A beautiful vacuum.
        I’m not aware of Mr. Reygadas’ previous films, and I’m more curious than ever before to see his other films. The word I hear is that Mr. Reygadas has made a deliberate move against his own cinematic sensibilities. In Silent Light, he seeks to explore the world of the Mexican Mennonites, and use them as channels to attain a spiritual connection. There is Johan (Mr. Wall) who is a loving husband to a handsome woman Esther (Ms. Toews). She is the mother to all of his seven kids, and she is supposed to be everything a man might want to ask from a wife. But he is in love, a newfound undeniable unavoidable love, with a woman just as handsome as Esther, and her name is Marianne (Ms. Pankratz). In a community like that of the Mennonites, considering what I have learnt, it is a spiritual crisis of great gravity.
        The problem is one doesn’t feel any truth to Mr. Reygadas’ mise-en-scène. It is rid with artifice, and its behaviors feel extremely self conscious. An image might contain immense beauty, might be surreal, might be austere, and might be worthy of many more such adjectives only if we can feel the emotion swell within us so much so that we begin to soar to great heights. A Tarkovsky film, and a Bergman film have several moments where their inner self is laid threadbare on the screen, and we’re moved with no plausible explanation. Spirituality springs from deep within, and it is seldom given to perfection. It could be felt in the most mundane of images, like the sight of a line of cars standing still in the wee hours of the morning.
        But a still image, a perfectly composed image, a perfectly symmetrical image with the object in focus perfectly equidistant from all the corners doesn’t feel worldly one bit. And with that I don’t mean it feels ethereal. Just that it reeks of staging, as a deliberate and calculated shot. Mr. Reygadas offers us several such shots spread over long passages of time, maybe to make us feel them actually happening. He opens with dawn, a six minute dawn, and it is the best moment of the film. Maybe because it came first, and I neither have any idea nor any defense on that. As a viewer who often rushes to theatres, I treasure a few minutes of silence so that I calm myself before I watch a film. The opening sequence does that, it soothes you, seeks to perform a meditative healing and draws you within. I was, awed for a moment watching stars shine as night turned to dawn and dawn turned to daybreak and eventually sunlight broke free. Mr. Reygadas probably suggest this to be the divine light as it takes us into the family. It is a long scene with no details apart from the ones the film intends for us to see. I stress on intended because that is an aspect I believe is an offshoot of artifice. We are forced to watch the family pour the milk in their cereal and eat it. We watch every morsel that finds its way into their mouth. We watch, and they eat, and we watch. And we watch. The breakfast is over, and the members move to pursue their respective days.
        We then instantly learn Esther has already been told by Johan about his other love. She pledges her love for him and moves out, and he rolls a spoon until he breaks down and he cries. He cries, and we watch, and he cries. And he cries. Mr. Hall, I learn is an untrained actor, and it shows in the manner in which his desperate attempts at sucking more tears out of his eyes are pretty apparent. Crying, or breaking down, is a moment where the truth of an actor is brought to the fore whether he wants it or not. Naomi Watts cries, and we are terrified. Mr. Hall cries, and we feel sorry for him and his inability.
        Such is the way the film moves. It asks us to watch long mundane scenes, and I would have been fine had he not given the game away by not believing himself in the inherent beauty of these images. He tries to compose his images in a way that lends an external beauty and a certain sense of obviousness. Often there are lens flares in his images, an utterly apparent trickery. And often he revolts from his still imagery and adopts a moving camera, and the overall effect is that of a filmmaker calling the shots rather than us being entranced. He shows us grass being cut for five minutes, he shows us cows being ushered into their sheds for another five, and we gain nothing. We all at various points in our lives have referred to the watching-paint-dry joke to describe something woefully boring. Silent Light actually paints a wall and asks you to seek spirituality and emotional peace watching it dry in the sun. Oh, of course, the wall has two windows and they would cut an absolute picture of symmetry. Mr. Reygadas might be offering visual symbolism but I ask anybody how a certain image, say that of a cadaver placed neatly in the center of a sparkling white room, be reduced to a symbol, which by inference means one particular interpretation. I ask of you dear reader, for you might have often been greatly moved by an otherwise harmless image.
        This is the kind of film that is more reliant on creating a visual experience than a narrative one. Mr. Reygadas seems to take that theory too far as he absolutely leaves the narrative strand to dry itself too, and we’re left with characters speaking perfunctory dialog. They only speak to serve the themes of the film in one way or the other, and they seem to be nothing more than puppets of the filmmaker. He also seems to have a particular liking to insert a shot of the family’s reflection in the bell of the wall clock. Curiously the clock stops in the middle of the film, not to start until the end. I have this sneaking feeling Mr. Reygadas is considering himself God here, in this film of his, providing their lives with an other-worldly beauty and peace. Problem is this God feels kinda unimaginative, and pretentious.

3 comments:

Srikanth said...

Wow, This film is on my to-see list for a long time. I accept your points on artifcie of image, but the from last para, i infer that you demand a narrative in the film.

I'm sure you are comfortable without one too, but just wanted to know the reasons why you attack the narrative of the film (I mean, was there supposed to be a narrative in this film at all?)

man in the iron mask said...

There wasn’t supposed to be a narrative, but there sure was supposed to be a world and lives in it. For instance, Gus Van Sant, who I believe is a gifted poet. Elephant was about nothing, and it had no story, but I admire it and love it. In its style we feel a certain empathy for its characters, and a certain level of practical understanding of their lives.
I do not demand a narrative Srikanth. And often, a narrative spoils the illusion, like in American History X, where the plot is what destroys the film and makes it average. Images alone can do the trick, like for instance the opening few moments of 2001. An audio visual experience can just as much cause a spiritual reaction, like Mirror or 2001. But not here in this artifice. One of my friends suggested that the way camera was used often felt amateurish. I almost want to agree with her.

Arijit Bose said...

I read your review with great interest and a feeling of increasing familiarity with what you are trying to say here. I have felt something similar while watching quite a few movies. An example that comes to mind is a Peter Greenway movies, ‘A Zed and Two Naughts’. Although I would not say that it was somnolent or boring in any way, I felt constantly a dread that there was more below the surface than I was seeing. The use of symmetry and grouping of persona in the frames that repeat again and again appear like topographical symbols on maps, things that mean something but leave me clawing the air for shreds of meaning. Anyways whatever a movie maybe, I always feel that there is something new to be taken away from it, and Greenways movies have often been very instructive and enjoyable in contrast to the movie you were talking about.