Silent Light traces the imperceptible reverberations of a guilty conscience, in this case that of a Mennonite farmer in Mexico (Cornelio Wall) torn between his extramarital affair and his faith. Writer-director Carlos Reygadas favors scenes in which the camera ever-so-gradually closes in on an object, which is also how the farmer’s betrayal works: no one notices the pain they’re swimming in until it’s suddenly staring them in the face.
Johan, the farmer, is the husband of Esther (Miriam Toews) and the father of six children. Even after confessing to his wife and pledging renewed commitment, he still finds himself reuniting with Marianne (Maria Pankratz), another member of their religious community. The illicit couple’s trysts are quiet and hushed, equally filled with whispers of love and sighs of regret. When Johan returns to Esther, she crumples without batting an eye. As in the handful of remarkable shots in which Reygadas tracks from the bright outside into a darkened building without a cut, you have to look closely, and with patience, to see what’s happening within.
Perhaps this is the implacable glare of God.
This approach works better with the camerawork than the performances. Across the board, the actors deliver work that is nearly catatonic (save for two notable crying sequences). Even when they speak in floridly emotional terms, their voices and facial expressions don’t match the subtitled words. It’s as if they’ve been numbed by some outside entity, unable to fully enjoy the pleasures they seek.
One way to read Silent Light is to identify that entity as God (or at least religion). There are long sequences of Johan’s family frozen in prayer, waiting for him to utter that liberating word, “Amen.” At one point, as Marianne and Johan embrace, she tries to shield her face from the glare of the sun. Perhaps this is the implacable glare of God and the silent light of the title.
At different sections of the film, the three principal players take turns expressing sympathy for each other: “Poor Esther.” “Poor Marianne.” “Poor Johan.” All have fallen under oppressive judgment of one kind or another, a judgment that has kept peace beyond their grasp. Such a vision of religion is debatable, but the movie’s feel for human anguish in the midst of relational messiness is not. This is a film of terrific pain, no matter how softly it moves and speaks.