By Tim Winterstein –
I wasn’t sure what kind of movie I was watching when Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (Stellet Licht; 2007, streaming on the Criterion Channel or disc for purchase on Amazon) began with a minutes-long time lapse of a sunrise, and there is no dialogue for more than seven minutes. I think it’s probably the sort of film where people either hold on, hoping for a pay-off, or give up. You should be the former.
As one reviewer (Stuart Klawans, in The Nation) put it, “When Reygadas’s camera dollies through a doorway much more slowly than the characters would walk, you may either feel impatient or else watch very closely, sensing that every detail must somehow be important. Similarly, when Reygadas’s camera leaves the performers behind and wanders off on its own, you can either view the excursion as a stylistic flourish or else experience it as a profound act of sympathy with the characters, who are striving to look beyond themselves.”
Since every reviewer mentions Ordet in connection with it, the similarities are indeed striking. They begin with the setting: people in small, isolated religious communities are forced to reckon with themselves. In Ordet, it’s caused by a son returning to his family with an outlandish claim and the members of the family are forced to choose whether they will believe him or not. In Silent Light, it’s caused by a marriage increasingly pressured by adultery, which leads to both private and public shame.
Reygadas has absorbed Carl Theodore Dreyer’s pacing—intentionally, I assume. Everything is as slow and unhurried as the Mennonites at prayer; as the day beginning and the day ending. If Dreyer had lived in the age of color film, it might have looked like this: simple tableaux observed silently, slowly torn apart by a word or a single tear or the sound of nature. And every word seems as if it is being mustered slowly, and with great effort.
The sound is overwhelming, both in what is present and what is absent. There is no score. The only music in the movie comes from the radio of the tractor mechanics and the haunting voices of the dirge that they sing outside the room where Esther lies dead. Otherwise, the sounds are earth-bound sounds: the ticking of the clock, the whirring of insects, the crunch of snow, the corn husks as the harvester runs through and plucks them, and the hammering rainstorm.
But the dominant theme is the press of time. Here time is a burden, not a healer. If the passage of time cannot remove guilt and regret, what hope is there? Both Johan and Marianne claim to have no regrets about what they’ve done. But everything else they say and everything they do belies that. Before Esther’s death, she and Johan express the wish that they could go back to when they were happy. But as Marianne says in a fundamentally different context, the one thing they cannot do is go back in time and undo what has been done.
In the initial scene where Johan is alone, he stops the clock in his kitchen (although the actual deed is cut off by the upper limit of the camera’s view). At the wake, Johan’s father re-winds the clock. But in between, time passes irregularly. Although the film begins with the sunrise and ends with a sunset, within the film’s time frame we move between seasons and settings without transition. Spring, harvest, snow; the movement jars to the point where I wasn’t sure how much time had passed between scenes.
Though the ending echoes Ordet‘s (literally) incredible resurrection, it also makes us (through Johan, Marianne, and Esther) reconsider facile conclusions about the good of “going back,” and what good actually is. In the eyes of less scrupulous adulterers, Esther’s death would actually have been a way forward for Johan and Marianne, a way for them to live together publicly. So when Esther is raised (intimately and physically by Marianne), she says, “Poor Johan.” She realizes that, in time’s turning back, the burden grows. It is not eased.
And it appears that, finally, Marianne is able to make her hard but right choice, giving (literally?) her life for Esther’s. She exchanges her beating heart for Esther’s broken one. And after Esther begins to breathe again, Marianne walks out of the house for the last time. This time we believe she means it.
My sister-in-law asked me why I never write about happy movies. I don’t think she means comedies. But happy movies are hard. Even movies with happy endings have to have brought us through a journey with conflict and something with which the happiness can be compared. A movie that is simply happy wouldn’t have much of a plot. The fact is, I don’t know if I can even think of a movie I like that I would describe as “happy.” (I’ll take suggestions!)
But movies like Silent Light—which no one is going to mistake for “happy” films—still give a sense that even in a world where we’ve screwed up everything, there may still be hope. It isn’t going to come from us—something that Christians ought to know well—but it may come nonetheless. Johan tells his father, “Everything is broken now.” His father says, “The enemy is implacable.” And Johan answers that the brokenness doesn’t come from “the devil or anyone else. It’s me.” Thus the crux of our own responsibility for our sin and also the sharp point that those who are the cause of the problem can’t be their own solution. And so Marianne must act as the deus ex natura here, and she redeems Johan and Esther’s marriage through her own loss.
Then the sun sets between trees and over wind-filled wheat. And whether it rises again or not, there is the hint of the truth that only resurrection can restore what has been broken and lost (though it cannot be full restoration in this world as it is). But the “earth is full of Your creatures. … These all look to You, to give them their food in due season. When You give it to them, they gather it up; when You open Your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide Your face, they are dismayed; when You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When You send forth Your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:24-30).