Active Ingredients: Crisp cinematography; Convincing locations
Side Effects: Inflated drama; Flat acting; Pretend profundity
What is it that keeps most audiences from embracing art house films? Is it really reading subtitles and swallowing more “difficult” storytelling, devoid of the Hollywood ending? With so much talk of the mainstream clamoring for “originality” these days, I doubt that ambiguity alone sours people on the art house. Rather, it’s a fear of pretension, those vapid, high-minded, glacial films, that sends people running for the multiplex. Silent Light is exactly that type of film, the type of film reluctantly accepted like medicine. Come on, swallow, it’s good for you. It’s the type of film that keeps people from realizing that the art house and vitality and, god forbid, fun are not mutually exclusive.
Johan, a Mennonite living in Mexico, is racked by guilt over an affair that he’s too weak to resist. His wife knows of his infidelity, and pouts to show her pain. Johan sees that he’s hurting the women he loves, along with himself, and he struggles to find the strength to prevent everyone from being miserable. It’s a simple story, as old as time, and it’s one fraught with powerful emotions by definition, yet the film’s design and its actors are so flat that none of that inherent power comes off the screen. Director Carlos Reygadas relies on long, often static shots to express the turmoil of his characters, but his careful constructions lack the inflated meaning he believes is behind them. Rather than containing still and graceful drama, his shots are empty, all polished exterior and none of the meaning that should be behind it.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on the film. I can say the cinematography is truly a marvel, and, that the film contains some beautiful images. It’s colorful, detailed and crisp, rending the scenery almost tactile. You can feel the cool water of a spring and hear crunching snow underfoot. However this powerful tool, this skilled camera, is largely wasted on pretty pictures with little compositional tension and no emotional richness.
Reygadas impressed me with the look of his film, but bored me to tears with his drama and failed to engage me. There’s nothing wrong with a slow film. There’s nothing wrong with using quiet visual poetry to tell a story instead of words. Indeed, these can be qualities of sublime, impactful cinema. But when these methods, that reek so strongly of the stereotypical pretentious film, are wielded so stubbornly and single-mindedly, it’s no wonder art house cinema is such a hard sell.