Silent Light marks its intent from the start with a long, langorous shot of a rural sunrise. Trees are silhouetted in the foreground and birds chatter somewhere in the foliage. Wildlife awakens as the night is pushed back. It seems director Carlos Reygadas is in a reflective mood.
The slow pace extends to the story. Filmed in Mexico within a small community of Mennonites – conservative Christians who speak Plaudietsch, a Low German dialect – it follows Johan (Cornelio Wall), a married man struggling with the guilt of his extra-marital affair. Johan is pious, humble and attentive to his family but he has fallen deeply in love with another woman.
With the utmost deliberation Reygadas articulates the difficulties that Johan faces in coming-to-terms with his adultery. This sounds backwards – after all his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), is the wronged party – but Johan is a man of deeply-felt, albeit misguided, principles. He keeps Esther appraised of his other relationship at every step, as if to prove that his relationship with his mistress, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), is driven out of a desperate longing way beyond his control.
This is a film characteristic for its reluctance, full of people crippled by inaction. They ache with guilt. On Johan’s part he is unwilling or unable to fully commit to one of the two women in his life. Reygadas picks out his teary face in passing streetlights, his heaving back as he sobs alone in his farmhouse kitchen. It is a beautiful, slow tragedy in the making.
The final scenes are astonishing and prompt a re-evaluation of everything that has gone before. Why, for instance, when Johan visits his father for advice about his dilemma, does the season seem to change, impossibly? What is the significance of the stopped clock? We are offered few answers, but maybe there’s a sign in how Johan wishes he could turn back time. The golden hour scenes that bookend Silent Light are postcard perfect but a deeper beauty lies in the way it encourages the imagination.