With the release of Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas may have to surrender his title as Mexican cinema’s resident rabble rouser. Coming on the heels of the elephant-dung Jesus that was 2005’s Battle in Heaven, this austere, astonishingly beautiful drama of marital and spiritual crisis, set in a modern-day Mennonite community, seems more the work of a confident young master than that of an impish enfant terrible. I spoke with the 37-year-old filmmaker when he passed through New York for the 2007 New York Film Festival.
It could be said that all of your films are stories of men who find themselves torn between what they believe, or have been taught to believe, and what they feel inside. What is it about this tension that interests you?
I think we live in tension, and of course the essence of happiness is trying to bring that tension to a minimum. But that particular tension that you have described is exactly the one I have felt in my own life, and although I think I’ve come to terms with it in a rather acceptable way, still, it is there. Feeling, and what we think is right—what our values are—are very often divorced. Or they overlap in some ways and not in others.
That can often be the case when it comes to matters of religion, which plays a major role in the lives of many Mexican people.
People like the ritual of going to church; in pre-Hispanic times, it meant going to the mountain, but then they built churches on exactly the same mountains, and people keep going there. I don’t think the actual connection with the spiritual part of religion is very intense. Actually, I think most Mexicans in that sense are in a primitive state of religion, where, basically, God is just a provider to whom you ask favors and grace and all that, but with whom you never feel a personal relationship.
Yet your films—particularly, Silent Light—have a deeply spiritual feel, the sense of people searching for something in their lives that exists beyond the physical.
Maybe it’s an individual accident, because if you look at Mexican films, I don’t think it’s very common. My characters are not very typical: [In Japón,] a guy who wants to commit suicide and is completely aware of it and faces it straightforwardly—that is something very rare in the world, and, most particularly, in Mexico. I always say that my films are very Mexican, because that’s what I am. But this film, Silent Light, I know could have been done by someone from another nation, and nothing about it would change.
This is a movie in which the light and the weather are so present in the images that they seem to be telling part of the story. I’m thinking in particular of the scene late in the film in which the wife of the main character breaks down crying by the side of the road during a torrential rainstorm.
That’s why we decided to work with an 11-person crew and to invest in time rather than in equipment or salaries. That rain . . . I remember we waited for it for a whole week in a particular location. One week—all of us sitting there, and after two days, I began to worry about a mutiny. But I had a really good relationship with the crew, and they were willing to give me all their faith and patience. So we waited Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then on Saturday, it was me who got fed up and lost my patience and decided we were going to do something else that day. And that day, it poured down. We decided to drive back really fast, and when we got there, the rain stopped. So, we had to drop that for a couple of weeks, until finally there was rain forecast again.
I originally gave Silent Light a positive but somewhat mixed review when I saw it at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, most of the reservations of which seemed insignificant to me upon a second viewing. Perhaps this is a good time to discuss the fact that some films fail to fully reveal themselves to the viewer—even when that viewer happens to be a critic—on the first viewing.
It’s an important thing, I think, because early on in the history of cinema, we realized that films were a good way of making money, and so films were transformed very quickly into entertainment. Entertainment is designed to always be changing. We see something one time and that’s it—it’s not designed to be studied or be something that we can get into deeply, like poetry or music. Can you imagine hearing Beethoven’s Ninth only once in your life? That would be so stupid! You have to hear it many times to appreciate it and to know what it’s all about, and I think the same thing can happen with cinema. Unfortunately, nowadays in cinema, everything is about the first impression. But I really think that the films you like you should see all your life. Recently, I’ve been rewatching the films of [Abbas] Kiarostami, particularly Where Is My Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On, and Through the Olive Trees. Those three are huge, really huge. They are so tender, so pure, so direct, so transparent—and that’s love, you know? They can really bring you to tears.