May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
July 16, 2009
(On the heels of an earlier post, a spoiler-laden review follows…)
The opening shot of Silent Light is one of those that will be talked about for a long time, earning a spot a special list out there among the critical canons that most often includes a sequence or two from 2001, the driving scene in Solaris, the first railway scene in Stalker, the balloon in Rublev, the beginning of Heart of Glass, the street scene in Werckmeister Harmonies, the rooftop in I am Cuba, the flying Jesus in La Dolce Vita, perhaps the telephone in Once Upon a Time in America. There are more out there, but this is essentially a list of lengthy establishing shots, unexpected passages of time during which we become acclimated to a mood, location, or rhythm of action. Often crossing wires with notions of pure cinema, these shots are painstaking, technically self-absorbed, perhaps even verging on irrelevancy. But they are also the entire point. Pure image, properly exposed to a network of religious, political, or emotional ideas, is revelatory. The beginning of Silent Light is the reason I keep returning to cinema.
It is such a perfect introduction because it continues to shape and inform the film until it reappears as its conclusion. The second time around its intent is clear, and welcome. If it was mysterious at the start, now it is revealing, embracing the film in brackets of myth.
In the beginning, there was a camera. It panned slowly from a starry sky, down to the horizon along which the dawn broke in real time. Trees and fields emerged. It cut to a family praying quietly in the early hours of the morning, a ticking clock in the background. It was a movement from darkness, to light, across nature, into the house of a family who go forth to labor after prayers – a clear cycle of creation as narrated in Genesis.
This is an odd beginning for a film about a man conflicted by his love for his mistress and his duty towards his wife and children. It makes cultural sense in light of the Mennonite setting of the film, for which the Biblical narrative is formative. But it takes a while for the film to close this circuit of reference. Over the course of the film Johan talks about his problem with a friend, gets advice from his father, and tries to comfort his bereaved wife. The moments he does spend with his mistress are equally quiet, as profoundly unadorned as their lives shaped by Mennonite spirituality. All sexuality in the film becomes reduced to the image of an Edenic leaf, fluttering to the bed with all of its psychological repercussions.
We come to understand that Johan casts his conflict in theological terms. It may be that his feelings are actually “founded in something sacred.” It is either from God or the Devil. His mistress wants to stop seeing him because “peace is stronger than love.” This isn’t just a conflict between two women, but between theological ideas and human feelings. It has fractured Johan’s religious identity – which the rest of the film is intent on restoring.
Silent Light does this in two ways:
1. The first way is by means of the storyline. Eventually, his wife dies after a massive coronary, her heart broken by all the tension. He clings to her in the rain on the side of the highway until someone pulls over to help. It is too late. Her body is prepared for burial, and we see various members of the community participating in the funereal rites. Johan’s mistress appears and asks to see her body. Alone in the room she kisses her, and Johan’s wife miraculously awakes. In this miracle Johan’s inner conflict is resolved by the way that the miracle dissolves the tension between his theological life and his emotional life. His wife has been divinely restored, contradicting all the mistaken theology he considered as possible explanations for his affair. Regardless of what he thought, God was present and vigilant. But through this miracle, their marriage relationship has also been restored, and now his conflicting identities have been brought into alignment.
2. The second way Johan is restored is by means of the biblical imagery in the film. If the opening scene is a Genesis reference, then it isn’t a stretch to see his wife’s death as a flood narrative. Her death place takes in a torrential downpour, her heart broken by sin for which she has no personal responsibility. Her death is a judgment of Johan’s affair, but it is the unfair kind of judgment that the flood narrative forces us to come to grips with. There isn’t a definitive Genesis equivalent to the miracle scene, but it circumvents the flood with biblical sense of grace nonetheless, Johan’s mistress quietly approaching the corpse like Mary Magdelene. The conclusion bookends the film with the vitality of these allusions, and Johan emerges from them like Noah from the Ark, Abraham with a ram from the thicket, or Jacob with a limp and a new name.
This is a positive reading of Johan’s struggle that isn’t clearly outlined in the film, but it takes its cues from the direction different allusions point us. Apart from solving his identity crisis, the final act is also more broadly about transcendence over nature. Johan is locked in a struggle that he considers to be natural, yet it is hopeless. The film toils over so much natural imagery, letting us watch Johan and others live through this crisis whether they are aware of it or not. And then in a turn of events, nature is overcome. That is where all the hope in the film lies. The painstakingly opaque Mennonite setting is not arbitrary, but rather provides the thought world in which miracles occur and make sense.
Other than the prayer scenes, the most intensely religious scenes are those that occur during the funeral and death ritual. The film crescendos that direction, slowly lifting itself out of all the natural imagery, and then concludes with a very supernatural event. It seems that for Reygadas, religion is the language of faith and the narrative ground in which images of hope can be planted. Cycling image by image through the idea of things being revealed and unveiled, the dawn that sets the film in motion culminates in the eyes of Johan’s wife fluttering awake – her resurrection an event that is consistent with the film’s almost theological preoccupation with images slowly growing in clarity. It is also an event that makes a MacGuffin out Johan’s despair, an incarnation of the glimmering light that suffuses Reygadas’ natural cinematography.
And parallel to all these biblical references to creation, Eden, the fall and the flood, there are very clear allusions to Dreyer’s Ordet. But even though this overt reference is the crescendo towards which Reygadas has been striving, Ordet and Silent Light are entirely different films. The person who made Ordet could not have made Reygadas’ previous film, Battle in Heaven.
I can see how a person who made a film like Battle in Heaven, which is so invested in the desperate and regressive ways in which people physically relate, would be interested in crowning Johan’s struggle with Ordet’s resurrection moment. It is such a vigorous shorthand for the kind of redemption of physical reality that film is ultimately about. But once transposed to Reygadas’ parallel interests in nature and grace as formal devices, I don’t think the Ordet reference has such a fine point on it that we can say it is about resurrection as a theological term in the traditional sense. It is actually about resurrection in a specific narrative sense, one which has connections to the other biblical references in the film, but also to us as viewers that have long been steeped in Ordet‘s genius. It is a meta-commentary on what makes film transcendent – even more compelling that Paul Schrader’s early book on the subject. Almost too meta, but he pulls it off. It is a gesture more faithful to cinema history than any biblical or theological impulse.