(Co-Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival)
Written and directed by Carlos Reygadas, Luz silenciosa (Silent Light) is the story of a married man who falls for another woman at the Mennonite community in Northern Mexico. The film explores the world of the Mennonite community in Mexico that is a mixture of different nationalities that includes German and Canadian. Starring Elizabeth Fehr, Jacobo Klassen, Maria Pankratz, Miriam Towes, and Cornelio Wall. Luz silenciosa is a ravishing yet magnificent film from Carlos Reygadas.
Confused by his actions, Johan (Cornelio Wall) is a farmer with a wife named Esther (Miriam Towes) and several children as he is also in love and having an affair with another woman named Marianne (Maria Pankratz). After telling his friend Zacarias (Jacobo Klassen) and later his father (Peter Wall) about the affair. His father would reveal something to Johan about his own bout with temptation as he promises not to tell Johan’s mother (Elizabeth Fehr) about the affair. During a day where he’s harvesting corn with Esther and their children, Marianne makes a visit needing help where the two eventually have sex. Still, Johan is torn in his love for two women as a trip with Esther would create an event that would test Johan’s faith.
The film is essentially an exploration into the life of a farmer as he is torn between two women and is ravaged with guilt over what he’s doing to them as he seeks answers. That’s essentially the story of the film as its lack of conventional plot allows its writer/director Carlos Reygadas to delve into this man’s guilt as he is often surrounded by family and friends while he also has a mistress that nearly everyone in his circle knows about. Yet, he tries to deal with it the best way he can though he knows what he’s doing is wrong. The script allows the character of Johan to be a man who isn’t totally a bad man but one that is just lost in this extramarital affair where he is hurting both his wife and mistress.
The film’s direction is truly hypnotic from the way it opens and closes in the same location of how a day begin and ends. For about five minutes, it shows how night becomes dawn as it then cuts to this family having breakfast where it’s just about a family beginning the day with prayer and getting ready for what is ahead. It’s a very silent yet mesmerizing scene where the camera looks at the family but the person that is in focus is Johan since he’s the head. What happens afterwards is that while the entire family leaves for the day, Johan remains in his chair. Usually, the role would be for the man of the house that would lead things but not in this film. It’s because Reygadas is interested in this man that is essentially falling apart due to his guilt.
There’s a lot of long sequences and wandering shots where things do zoom in quite slowly to see what is happening. The only bits of shakiness in the camera is when it’s in some intimate moments such as Johan walking through the fields to meet with Marianne or having a wonderful moment with his family at a nearby pool. Still, the camera is often looking afar or just playing to see what the characters are seeing. Since the film takes place in a remote community in the middle of Mexico. The film has the characters speaking in a very different variation of German called Plautdietsch to interact with one another in this community as they also speak bits of English and Spanish when they travel outside of that world. Since these locations of mountains, farmland, and hills add to the exotic world of Mexico. It does feel like a very different world where at one point, there’s a scene with snow where it seems like the story takes place in a matter of months.
While a film with no traditional plot with a lot of long scenes and slow rhythm is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Reygadas however manages to find a way to not linger on a scene too long while he takes his time to let a scene play out. Notably in the film’s third act when Johan and Esther take this trip that would lead to this very poignant yet very entrancing sequence that plays to some of the film’s religious elements. The camera maintains an understated quality to these compositions where Reygadas is concerned with Johan and all of these people around him. Overall, Reygadas creates what is truly an incredible and visually-stunning film about faith and guilt.
Cinematographer Alexis Zabe does an amazing job with the film‘s entrancing photography that is filled with gorgeous scenery of the Mexican hills and landscapes as well as the beautiful scenes in the snow and in the rain as some of it recalls the beauty of the films of Terrence Malick. Editor Natalia Lopez does nice work with the editing as it’s mostly straightforward in its cutting while maintaining a methodical pace for the film. Production designer Gerardo Tagle and art director Nohemi Gonzalez do superb work with the set pieces created such as the home of Johan‘s family to the van that a friend of Johan enters where his kids watch a footage of Jacques Brel singing.
The film’s big technical highlight is its sound courtesy of its sound editors Martin Hernandez and Sergio Diaz. The sound work is truly one-of-a-kind for the way Hernandez and Diaz create an atmosphere in many of the film’s exterior locations while utilizing a more sparse mix for the way shoes touch the ground or the clanging of objects. There’s very little music heard in the film other than a religious chant and a country song that is playing in the background. The sound is much broader for the chilling scenes in the rain as well as the film’s climatic sequence towards the end for the way it is low-key and intimate as it’s truly sound work at its best.
The film’s ensemble cast is excellent for what is assembled as it features largely non-professional actors as the children and extras were selected from real Mennonite communities. Among the standouts include Elizabeth Fehr as Johan’s mother, Peter Wall as Johan’s preacher/farmer father, and Jacobo Klassen as Johan’s friend Zacarias. Maria Prankratz is wonderful as Johan’s longing mistress Marianne who tries to deal with the situation that is happening while Miriam Towes is great as the more low-key yet tormented Esther who is trying to deal with her husband’s guilt. Finally, there’s Cornelio Wall as the troubled Johan as Wall brings a quiet realism to his role as a man torn by his love for two women as he seeks answers for what he needs to do in this marvelous performance.
Luz silenciosa is a remarkable and extremely haunting film from Carlos Reygadas. Armed with a terrific ensemble cast of unknowns and amazing technical work, the film definitely stands as one of the most chilling portrayals of guilt in the world of adultery and faith. While it is not for everyone, it is still a film that revels into a world that few people know in these unique religious communities as well as following someone who is human and tries to be good. In the end, Luz silenciosa is an enthralling yet intoxicating film from Carlos Reygadas.
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