Thursday, November 8, 2007

A new cinematic milestone: Silent Light

Silent Light - Every film we see changes us, little by little, imperceptibly. Even the films we detest inevitably change our perspective of things. But every once in a long while, there comes a film that changes the way you think about film - and about life - that it becomes a milestone for you. A point of change in your appreciation of things in general. For me, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: Blue was one of them; Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark was one of them; Werner Herzog's The White Diamond was one of them; Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror was one of them; Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story was one of them. Tonight I was fortunate enough to see a film that has become one of the most transformative experience in my recent viewing history - the film is Silent Light.

Now, saying this at this juncture - right after seeing the film - might undoubtedly seem like hyperbole, of course. Films need time to settle and be absorbed into our psyche before we are able to view them in the right mind. But transformative experiences has an effect on one right away, and upon retrospection, leads one to think that all the mini epiphanies that came before were leading to this major revelation. Seminal work by masters such as Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive with its enigmatic view of life, Ermanno Olmi's Il Posto with its joy in the mundane, Otar Iosseliani's Pastorale with its whimsical view on the cycle of life, Terrence Malick's The New World and The Thin Red Line with their revelment in nature; and lastly, Carl Dreyer's Gertrud with its affirmation of predestination and the ecstasy of recognizing it. These films - some religious, some not - are little steps that set the stage for a massive transformation that would take place in my film perception tonight.

A few words have to be said about the film. Silent Light is a film set amidst a Mexican Mennonite community about a religious husband who faces a crisis within himself after falling in love with another woman. This basic premise is what carries the film to the end, differing and adding little to its ascetic plot. As has been pointed out many times, its plot is heavily reminiscent of Ordet, Dreyer's famous work of spiritual crisis, and one which Paul Schrader uses to illuminate elements of Transcendental style in Dreyer's work, though he also criticizes Dreyer for not following through with its necessary stasis.

Before I continue, a few caveats must be made. Silent Light is a religious film, there is no doubt about it, and to try to describe the 'holy' or the 'divine' is indubitably futile and redundant. This state of grace, or, as Schrader describes it in his essay, the Transcendent, cannot be described, only induced. Hence, I shall not attempt to put into words what the Transcendent means to me, or what it should mean for anyone; needless to say that I'm coming from a religious standpoint, and my choice of words would be unquantifiable, even mystical.

The reason why I have not yet affixed Carlos Reygadas' name in front of the film's title, is because I'm not sure to whom true authorship of the film should be attributed to. Reygadas has provided a basic premise for the film - metaphorically, as a blank canvas, or the cinematic frame - in which the film is able to extend and explore itself. Take the opening time-lapse shot for example - the film opens with a shot of a starry sky, then pans down and tracks in slowly as a dawning sun paints the sky. Its beauty is at once stunning and humbling, but we can only admire the artist for knowing the means to capture it; part of its humbling quality comes from the fact that this is a miracle that happens not only once in awhile, but everyday, the cosmic phenomena that we are privileged to but seldom witness. Throughout the film, bursts of accidental grace appear - a flock of pigeons fly out of the roof of a barn, wind blows off the hat of a woman, a light drizzle set the background for an erotic tryst in a hotel room - enough to suggest the presence of something greater and out of mortal means.

Like Terrence Malick, Reygadas uses nature as a means to communicate God's divinity. Setting the story amongst a Mennonite community allows for the film's necessary proximity to nature, an unpredictable and wondrous force that is at once awe-inspiring and threatening. A mysterious element in itself, nature becomes the background of the story, sometimes leaking through the cracks of its intentionally rigid structure (more on this later). As such, the bursts of nature in a controlled dramatic tragedy becomes the moments of disparity in the film - these moments shock and awe us, such as our trembling recognition of a primordial power far greater than us.

The spare structure of the plot, the meticulous mise-en-scene, and the controlled style of acting gives these bursts of nature their power. More so, the film is strangely adherent to Schrader's definition of Transcendental style, that of the everyday-disparity-stasis structure - a style that, in Zen terms, would lead viewers to see a mountain as first a mountain, then not a mountain, then a mountain again. The film's protagonist, a middle-aged Mennonite farmer, faces a spiritual crisis when he is afflicted with a love he doesn't understand, for a woman other than his wife. He is so confused by this strange, seemingly external power that he attributes this obsession to God - and indeed, the woman takes on a deific figure in the story.

Yet, to see Silent Light as a film in the Transcendental style seems somewhat reductive, as so much of its means are made out of the artist's control, as compared to the strictly controlled films of Ozu and Bresson that Schrader used in his essay. Although everyday routine is mainly used to paint the film, and stasis is ultimately achieved at the end of the film (correcting, in Schrader's view, Ordet's eventual rejection of stasis), Reygadas knows enough to let nature take center-stage. Everyday routine is just the draining of filmic sensibilities to direct the viewer's attention to the miracles in the natural world. He uses the frame to capture moments where nature actively presents itself; even when his camera is purposeful, it is so as to present nature (as when a character leaves the frame and the camera, unfocused, tracks in until a branch of pink flowers come into focus, cutting only when a drop of dew has slid from the flowers to the ground). In this sense, Reygadas' style more resembles the American transcendentalism (not Transcendental style) of Terrence Malick, though his reduction of technique and obscuring of individuality places him squarely in the tradition of religious iconography that Schrader uses as metaphors in his essay.

In a way, Reygadas' form of everyday-disparity does not dictate a linear progression toward eventual stasis, but a conflation of the everyday and disparity that exists in nature. This seems similar to the Dreyer model which Schrader talks about, and it is clear that Dreyer was on Reygadas' mind when he wrote the story. However, more than a homage to Dreyer, Reygadas' story is a fable, a deliberately simplistic one that instead places its veneration on the divinity that is expressed in nature, that is the ineffable that cannot be expressed through any cinematic means, only evoked.

In evoking this divinity, Carlos Reygadas knows when to capture and when to create. Photography and motion pictures are often discredited as art forms because they lack the dichotomy of adapting reality and creating reality. Their reproductive quality means that there is little room for subjective interpretation, eliminating the dichotomy altogether. This argument, however, is easily discredited, and the reality is that motion pictures include both aspects of the dichotomy in more subtle ways than other arts. The role of the artist, in this case the filmmaker, to capture or create is often ambiguous and is thus often bypassed altogether in film discussion.

A distinct example in early film history is that of the films of the Lumiere Brothers. Though seemingly a direct reproduction of reality, their films often contain a good amount of invention, plot, and subtle manipulations of reality. This tradition continue even up to today, in the naturalistic films of Hou Hsiao Hsien and John Cassavetes, among others. Reygadas, while intimately controlling acting style, captures nature with such a keen sense of beauty that, instead of seeing it as an obstructing screen, uses it as a bridge to the Transcendent. The film's soundtrack, when not filled with intimate human sounds (as when one puts an ear close to another human body), is filled with the sounds of leaves, bellowing cows and insects. His manipulation of reality does not go unescaped - in the end, when the decisive action has been achieved, he uses a pair of butterflies (the most miraculous occurrence) that flies out of the interior and back into the wild, closing the film where it began, showing mountain as mountain again. This evocation of stasis and the Transcendent makes the film one of the most beautiful and transformative for me.

Hasn't it always been said that art is a joint effort between God and the artist - the less the artist does the better? Such is the case with Silent Light, in which both God and Carlos Reygadas take co-authorship. By no means is Reygadas on equal standing with God, but his veneration of the eternal and beyond evokes the holy and the Transcendent, creating a staggering and no less mysterious work that is impossible to completely describe. Silent Light is nothing but a miracle.

Going to this film has also been one of my most memorable cinematic experience ever. As the film ended, the audience sat rapt as the silent credits patiently rolled, talking in hushed whispers as if in a massive cathedral. Walking into the deep autumn neon streets, people were arguing fiercely about the film. Having no one to talk to, I felt like a disciple who has just seen a miracle, ready to spread the gospel to the world. I have never felt so alone.

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