Low German, high art


A mesmerising exploration of
sin and redemption among Mennonites by Carlos Reygadas redefines Mexican cinema


Silent Light
Carlos Reygadas
2007, Jaime Romandia/Carlos Reygadas, Tartan Films et al.
136 mins, Plautdietsch with English subtitles

Reviewed by Eugene Carey

LATAMROB rating: ****

PERHAPS WE should not be surprised that one of the most audacious movies to come out of Latin America in recent years was filmed in Plautdietsch, or Mennonite Low German.

Silent Light (Stellet Licht) was directed, after all, by Carlos Reygadas, the enfant terrible of Mexican cinema and, if this movie is anything to go by, one of its greatest assets.

A mesmerising exploration of self-punishment, Silent Light turns on its head what we expect from Mexican cinema. Reygadas has provided an alternative snapshot of a country that, while remaining profoundly Mexican, ambitiously redefines the term.

Just ten years after making his first film, this director is demonstrating a progression away from the pretentious Japón (2002) and the gratuitously blunt Battle in Heaven (2005) and into a much less jagged and sublime terrain over which he travels with both lyrical and cinematic ease yet great control. Silent Light substitutes the desire to deliver confrontational shock with a far more nuanced aspiration to discover and explain. It is a philosophical reflection upon the quiet spirituality that defines right from wrong and the battle between duty and desire in all of us. Reygadas suggests that love is stronger than loyalty to God but, in true Mennonite tradition, that peace is stronger and more godly than love.

Austere landscape

Silent Light tells the story of Johan (Cornelio Wall), the kindly patriarch of a farming family who is racked by the guilt caused by his compulsive affair with a neighbour, Marianne (Maria Pankratz). His state of confusion, the suffering caused to his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and the delightful innocence of their children furnish an otherwise strikingly austere rural and domestic landscape.

Cornelio Wall, a disc-jockey from Chihuahua, succeeds in injecting such natural fragility into Johan’s morally ordered lifestyle that it is hard to believe this is his first acting role. We are simply caught up in his inescapable infidelity, a candid betrayal that we, like the characters, know will culminate in a form of self-destruction.

Miriam Toews is captivating as the delicate Esther, and her inclusion reflects skilful casting even though she, too, is not an actress. She was born in Manitoba, Canada, where many of the Old Colony Mennonites who uprooted and went to northern Mexico in the 1920s originally came from. In a climate of anti-German hostility following the first world war, they took up an invitation to settle by Mexico’s then president, Álvaro Obregón, and a mass migration followed. These experts in reclamation transformed Chihuahua’s huge semi-arid desert prairies with violently changeable weather patterns into lush, irrigated arable land producing an abundance of grains, fruit and dairy products.

Slow, unbroken takes

Reygadas employs familiar techniques of deliberate, slow, unbroken takes in Silent Light and demonstrates through the breathtaking tableaux created by Alexis Zabé’s long and wide shots a deep fascination for Mexico’s epic landscapes. The composition is also striking for how silence and a surreal, and very Mexican, timelessness – from the Mennonites’ own rejection of the present to the point at which the kitchen clock stops – are deployed to ensure patient reflection by the viewer.

These techniques allow Reygadas to contrast the static tranquillity of the environment with the turbulence of the soul, and the simple folk’s organic relationship with the land with the sense of detachment from it that comes with longing and the loss of love.

Perhaps the most visually significant aspect of the film and the reason why it redefines Mexican cinema, however, is the conscious depiction of ethnicity, which departs dramatically from the Hispanic norm and reveals in Mexicans’ midst a self-contained world that many know nothing about. The decision to film entirely in Plautdietsch was both bold and novel, for Silent Light is thought to be the first movie ever made in this language.

The appearance of only a few, traditionally “Mexican” characters reveals much about Reygadas’s very international perspective, and also how far his country has come since democratic advances began to challenge a forced nationalist historiography. It reminds us, much like the underlying ethnic dynamics of Battle in Heaven, that Mexico is a multicultural mosaic, despite so many crude assumptions to the contrary.

Silent Light tied with Persepolis to win the Prix Du Jury at Cannes in 2007 and, according to some critics, its composition, stark cinematography and long takes evoke the style of Carl Dreyer, the Danish director, and the allegorical force of Ingmar Bergman’s bleak Swedish tales of betrayal and insanity. That Reygadas can be likened to these master directors so early in his career is a measure of the distance he has travelled.

Eugene Carey is a freelance journalist