Subject of a week-long retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas is part stuntmeister, part visionary—a post-Warhol impresario and trained diplomat who, flirting with fraudulence and often working without a screenplay, orchestrates conditions where nonprofessional actors are compelled to expose themselves, sometimes cruelly, on camera.
The 37-year-old Reygadas attracted attention on the festival circuit in 2002 for his notably confident and achieved debut, Japón, a minimal yet unpredictable movie in which a craggy loner journeys to the bottom of the vast Sierra Tarahumara canyon in order to commit suicide. He garnered even more notoriety with his follow-up black comedy, Battle in Heaven, shown in competition at Cannes in 2005. Elaborating on Andy Warhol’s notorious Blow Job, Battle in Heaven opened with a tight close-up of a middle-aged man responding to some form of stimulation outside of the frame, and, accompanied by saccharine string music, subsequently panned down his portly frame to reveal him being serviced by a young woman with an extravagant bird’s-nest coiffure.
Admirably unpredictable and with a continued knack for choosing evocative locations, Reygadas followed up these calculated shocks by making the world’s first talking picture in the medieval German dialect, Plautdietsch. Stellet Licht (Silent Light), which is having its first local screening since it was shown twice during the 2007 New York Film Festival, is distinguished by its formal rigor and deadpan audacity. Even more than the Mexican director’s previous films, Stellet Licht is a behavioral experiment—set in northern Mexico’s Mennonite community and cast almost entirely with Mennonite non-actors. Some are related to each other; others have been recruited from Canada and Germany, as well as Mexico.
Reygadas’s primal narrative manages to be outrageous both within and without this religious context. The movie seems as potentially problematic for its devout performers (who knew that Mennonites were allowed to act, let alone act out?) as its secular audience (are we prepared to accept divine intervention?). The upright farmer Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), son of a preacher and father of six, is involved in and tormented by an adulterous relationship with the no-less-virtuous Marianne (Maria Pankratz). This affair, which is really a triangle carried on with the unhappy knowledge of his wife Esther (Miriam Toews), not to mention the seeming awareness of half their insular community, ultimately upends the laws of the universe. The most startling thing about Stellet Licht is its bid for greatness.
Where Japón had intimations of Christian sacrifice and Battle in Heaven perversely co-opted a religious procession through the heart of Mexico City to its own narrative ends, Stellet Licht is willing to assume that all is sacred—or at least God’s will. This is not only a factor of the plainspoken protagonist’s faith but the movie’s contemplative (or what Paul Schrader would call “transcendental”) style. Stellet Licht involves large chunks of real time and pays considerable attention to off-screen space. Everything in this relatively chaste production is monumentally deliberate, from the human interactions to the stolidly bucolic representation of Mennonite domesticity to the extraordinary, wide-screen landscape shots that bracket the action with four or five minutes of pantheist ecstasy.
Thus framing his story with a slow dawn and gradual dusk, Reygadas convincingly establishes a separate world—even, as suggested by the bucolic scenes featuring Johan, Esther, and their children, an earthly paradise. Creation seems regulated from above; life is ascetic, harmonious, and irrationally rational. Reygadas’s camera placement is as modest as his characters’ dress. The film’s rhythms are based on slow zooms and flat vistas framed through the windshield of an onrushing car. There’s a particular emphasis on machines, particularly the ticking clocks which preside over certain key scenes. No less than Japón and Battle in Heaven, Stellet Licht has a ceremonial quality and an elemental worldview, with Johan wondering whether his love for Marianne is the work of God or Satan.
As Stellet Licht oscillates between the sacred and profane, several minutes of silent prayer punctuated by stray barnyard sounds, Reygadas’s tale of passion, betrayal, and redemption seems a unique amalgam of ethnographic documentary and 16th-century psychodrama. Stellet Licht ends with an apparent miracle, but mystifying signs and wonders—ranging from an inexplicably snowy landscape in an otherwise sunbaked Mexico to a long, bizarre performance by a French singer, transmitted, without explanation, on TV—are offhandedly planted throughout the movie.
The film’s debt to Carl Theodor Dreyer—in subject matter, style, and punchline—is obvious (and, helping Reygadas repay, MOMA will screen Dreyer’s 1954 Ordet as part of the Reygadas show). But this connection only burnishes the filmmaker’s enigmatic intentions. Did the Mennonite community afford Reygadas an appropriate environment in which to stage a Dreyer remake—or was it that Dreyer presents the most “natural” scenario for a Mennonite drama? In either case, the results are extraordinary. As understated as it is, the movie is both deeply absurd and powerfully affecting.
Stellet Licht runs a leisurely 132 minutes, and Reygadas manages to imbue every moment with spiritual weight—or what one character calls “the pure feeling of being alive.” Given the filmmaker’s attention to ambient and off-screen sounds, Stellet Licht is far from silent. It is, however, profoundly still. As with the earliest motion pictures, it’s the quality of the light that really holds you.