Saturday, February 20, 2010

Notes on Reverence

I'm working on a piece about Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas' revisitation of Dreyer's Ordet. Here are some excerpts:

With the arts in general in their current state in America and particularly with the state of our film culture, I often wonder how enough audience exists to get art films made a distributed. I am often astonished by the titles put out by Criterion and Kino, because I have spent a lot of time in graduate programs in the humanities and the fine arts, and even among those corridors the viewership for art cinema is quite small. I recall a near revolt when professor showed Jeanne Dielman to a class of graduate film students at a major east coast research institution, and Criterion just put that one out a few months ago. I've also worked in video stores, and it has not been my experience that the public is responsible for this demand. Perhaps I shouldn't think about it so much. I certainly don't want to get into reception theory or perspectivism or whatever else the theory heads in film studies are up to these days. I hope it does not adversely color my appreciation and mislead my interpretation, but I cannot help but wonder who watches a film like Silent Light. It won awards and its available on Netflix, so someone must be watching it. I simply cannot imagine a film more out of step with our zeitgeist. (And then there is the gender mythology. I wonder if women hate this film the way they hate Lars von Trier movies.)


Of course these are not the concerns of Silent Light so forgive me if I have erected the straw man. The film is not so much about the possibility of miracles as it is about forgiveness, generosity and humility. The miracle is a narrative device – a metaphor; it is the embodiment of these qualities. In art we are allowed the communication of ideas through otherwise “unrealistic” means.


Mostly, though, Silent Light is about patience. The patience of the characters and the patience of the viewers. The first shot welcomes the viewer to the rhythm of the film before subject matter comes up. Before the infidelity, the drama, the death or the miracle, in short, before story comes the pacing. Reygadas treats the pacing as a foundation to build a story upon, a quite different approach than the traditional methods of establishing a setting and backstory. The film begins with a long take of a sunrise over a field. Only it begins in pitch black night, so it is not immediately apparent that one is watching a field. Trees in the foreground also obscure the view, but as the sun rises the image becomes clear. The sounds provide their own narrative, telling the story of night turning into day. Chirping crickets give way to singing birds which are in turn joined by mooing cows.

This measured slowness walks hand in hand with quiet. Cut from the field to the farmhouse interior. Only the tick-talk of the clock is heard while the family prays at the breakfast table. This is a silent prayer, with separate shot of the children, the mother, Esther, and finally the father, Johan, who breaks the silence with an “Amen” after a few beats, long enough, in fact for Esther to have stopped praying and start watching him intently. Now they eat milk over flakes. Clanking of bowls and slurping of milk dominate the soundtrack with occasional interjections of the children teasing one another. Some of the older children help the younger ones to eat, spooning the food into their mouths and wiping their chins.


It will be a while before the conflict in this drama is revealed. First, Esther takes the children out. Johan tells her he loves her. They depart and he is left alone. He retrieves something, a letter probably, from a container on a shelf above the front door, sits back down at the table, and begins crying. Here he is not quiet or reserved; he is really sobbing. This weeping is in stark contrast to the next scene, in which he goes to talk to his friend, Zacarias, about the affair. They talk seriously for a few moments, relating the nature of marriage and romantic relationships to the meaning of life. Suddenly, Johan is overcome by glee upon hearing a song on the radio. He hops in his pickup, turns up the volume and proceeds to drive around his friend in circles singing out the song to him and laughing, until he finally breaks out of the circle and drives away. This is surprising behavior in every context, unusual regarding what most viewers probably think of Mennonites, and it is a shocking contrast to both the reserved quietude of the morning and the outpouring of misery in the previous scene.

In a close-up of their two faces, we see the illicit lovers gaze upon one another for a few beats before they finally begin to kiss. A long kiss is followed by an embrace. No words are spoken. The introduction of the other woman, Marianne, is kept not just above the waist, but above the shoulders. Is love not so quiet? Certainly movies give us the impression that it is not. In most movies, the woman falls into the arms of the man, they kiss, she professes her love, he returns the favor, then depending on the era in which the movie was made they get down to business ranging from fade to black to a full blown sex scene with penetration and a cumshot. That two people who are engaged in such a sinful, dirty business would be shown simply hugging changes the way the viewer judges them. Moreover, by avoiding a salacious sex scene the narrative suggests the legitimacy of Johan's explanation to Zacarias that he has found his soul-mate. He's not a Mennonite looking for kicks, but a man in the throes of an existential crisis; he has married the wrong woman.

This scene is followed by an entirely different display of intimacy. Attention shifts to the wife and children. They are swimming, but it comes across as reverent as prayer. The children play, but play quietly. They play tenderly; very physical with one another but very gentle. That it all takes place in and around water makes it more intimate. One must be in at least a moderate state of undress to swim (and for the girls it is very moderate indeed; they where long, white dresses, perhaps it is an undergarment). Also the distance between people seems to shrink in water, because water is quite more tactile than air. Suddenly Johan is there. He has been there all along, but it seems sudden to the viewer, because we just saw him with Marianne, and the fact that his face has been withheld so far would lead one to believe he is still with her. Johan washes the hair of his children. This too is basic, elemental. Like the morning prayer and the eating of breakfast. Matter-of-fact intimacy, dispassionate tenderness. It is shot in sharp focus so the details of his fingers, the clumps of soapy hair, the soap bubbles, beads of water are clear and the background is lush, green out of focus. Esther is crying. The focus is pulled to her face, then the camera pans away to the green, blurry beyond. Slowly the focus is pulled, and the details of the forest vegetation become clearer, until finally there is a brightly colored flower in the center of the frame.

More details of the daily unforgiving, routine: the milking the cows sequence. The cows file into the barn and make their way to individual stalls. There are closeups of hands close-pinning tails up and out of the way. Then the milking machines are attached to the utters. This takes a few minutes before we see Johan who says, “Dad I need to talk to you.” The cows aren't symbolic; they have no bearing on the narrative other than that they are a part of the daily lives of the characters. Narrative moves slowly, quietly, and the characters likewise. Johan's father maintains a tranquil smile upon hearing his son's confession. His tone remains even as he recalls his own past temptation. His inner peace never breaks as he tells his son that he cannot make this decision for him, and that he will stand by him whatever he decides. The crunch of the snow takes the place of the gurgling water of the swimming/bathing scene.


(It occurs to me Reygadas may be thinking of Tarkovsky as much as Dreyer, certainly the would be two of a small number of filmmakers that would constitute a filmmaking tradition that is quiet, reserved, slow-paced, elemental.)


Marianne actually drives out to where they are working and Johan leaves with her. Esther makes him take the children. Does she think this will stop him from cheating or does he just want him to feel the guilt of having the children along on his tryst? There is a sex scene which is basically a single shot of Marianne's face and the back of Johan's head and shoulders. Like everything else it comes across earthy, matter-of-fact but no less intense and tender for its lack of histrionic demonstration or gratuitous nudity.


Esther dies of a heart attack. Dangerously close to a “broken heart,” but I'm willing to trust the narrative. The film has earned it at this point.

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