“Silent Light,” the new movie by the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, has the feeling of an artifact from another time, or maybe another planet. It’s set in a remote Mennonite farming community in rural Mexico, and the actors speak in Plautdietsch, an archaic German dialect that might prove impenetrable even to those who understand modern German. (The picture has English subtitles.) The story is about time and nature and God’s mysterious workings in the arena of human uncertainty; and the very long takes with which the director tells his tale (the opening shot of a vast night sky shading slowly into dawn, amid a rising chorus of insect chatter and treetop bird squawks, goes on for six minutes) puts you in a trance. It will certainly put some people to sleep, but anyone able to tune in to the movie’s tidal rhythm will be transfixed.
The movie opens on a farm family — husband, wife and six children — sitting at a kitchen table, heads bowed in silent prayer. A pendulum wall clock clacks loudly on the soundtrack, eventually joined by the clinking of forks and spoons as the family begins to eat. Not much is said; it’s clear that the characters are obscurely distressed. After the mother and children leave on an errand, the father gets up, stops the clock with a finger on its pendulum, sits back down at the table and begins to quietly weep, at considerable length.
As the father, Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), goes about his day — stopping in to seek the counsel of a friend at a service station, paying a troubled visit to his father — we learn the source of his torment. Although devoted to his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and their children, Johan has fallen in love with another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), who owns a small roadside café. Their relationship has become physical, and Johan has been conscientious about keeping Esther informed about what’s going on. (They do love each other, and she bears this disruptive news with stoic understanding.) Johan’s friend thinks Marianne could be the “natural woman” he was meant to be with — that his feeling for her “may be founded on something sacred.” His father tells him this temptation is the work of “the Enemy,” and insists that the passion will pass. Johan, for his part, is torn: Is his attraction to Marianne a signal from God, or only a moral flaw within himself?
Reygadas is in no rush to resolve any of this. As the story slowly plays out, he settles into a procession of long, quiet scenes — the family bathing outdoors in a rock-rimmed pool; the harvesting of hay and milking of cows — with only the most restrained emotional flourishes, like the limpid shot of a drop of dew falling like a tear off the petal of a flower. The landscape is a flat sprawl of crops and bracken under majestic, ever-shifting skies (the cinematography by Alexis Zabé has a sometimes monumental beauty), and the rooms through which the characters pass have the unornamented simplicity of a Vermeer domestic interior. The actors — some of whose chiseled faces might have been modeled on ancient coins — are all amateurs, many of them Mennonites, some of them actually related. But they are acting, under the director’s rigorous control, and while they don’t appear to be calculating an emotional response from us, they nevertheless elicit one.
Toward the end of the film, Reygadas suddenly pierces its measured, minor-key realism with a plot twist that seems to yank us into the realm of parable. But the movie doesn’t appear to be concerned with making us understand what’s happening. Instead, it makes us speculate about what can be understood of transient human actions in a world of timeless everyday wonders. Have we completely grasped the director’s intentions? Days later, you may still be wondering. You won’t have forgotten the movie, though.
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