One evening midway through this year’s Toronto Film Festival, patrons passing through the lobby of the festival’s Varsity multiplex theater may have taken pause at the sight of a young Mexican filmmaker loudly arguing with a certain American film critic over the critic’s review of his most recent movie. As it happens, the critic in question was yours truly, and the filmmaker was Carlos Reygadas, the 36-year-old director who has emerged as the most controversial figure in his country’s recent cinematic renaissance. After making a deserved splash on the festival circuit in 2002 with Japón, which told of a suicidal man’s strange liaison with an elderly peasant woman in a remote canyon town, Reygadas followed up with 2005’s more divisive Battle in Heaven, which opened with a notorious act of slo-mo fellatio before going on to follow a depressed Mexico City chauffeur’s gradual descent into a kind of earthly hell. (Reygadas coyly termed it “my least modest film.”) Reygadas’ third feature, Silent Light, which won a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and will have its Los Angeles premiere this weekend at AFI Fest, is in some ways his most audacious undertaking yet: a drama of marital and spiritual crisis set in a modern-day Mennonite community on the outskirts of Chihuahua, filmed entirely in the German-derived Plautdeitsch language.
Writing about Silent Light from Cannes, I praised the film for its exquisite physical beauty (not least of all an opening shot of the sun slowly cresting the horizon) and respect for its characters, while expressing some reservations about the two-and-a-half-hour length and what I perceived as a certain emotional opacity on the part of Reygadas’ nonprofessional actors. In Toronto, that was enough to prompt Reygadas to accuse me of being part of a North American critical conspiracy against serious art filmmakers, no matter my protestations that I liked many things about Silent Light and was, on balance, a fan of his work. Then, out of curiosity, I went to see Silent Light again and came away feeling as though I’d seen a different movie — not because of anything Reygadas had said, or because of the perfunctory editorial changes he’d made to the film post-Cannes (resulting in a slightly shorter running time), but simply because, on second viewing, those things I initially found distant and somewhat studied now felt overwhelmingly immediate in the way great art can be. Movies, of course, are not fixed objects — they are highly variable, depending on where and when we see them. Rarely, though, has a film grown so much in my estimation from one viewing to the next as Silent Light — one of many subjects I took up with Reygadas when we met again in New York last month.
L.A. WEEKLY: It could be said that all of your films are stories of men who find themselves torn between what they believe, or have been taught to believe, and what they feel inside. What is it about this conflict that interests you?
CARLOS REYGADAS: I think we live in tension, and of course the essence of happiness is trying to bring that tension to a minimum. But that particular tension that you have described is exactly the one I have felt in my own life, and although I think I’ve come to terms with it in a rather acceptable way, still it is there. Feeling and what we think is right — what our values are — are very often divorced. Or they overlap in some ways and not in others.
That can often be the case when it comes to matters of religion, which seems to play a major role in the lives of many Mexican people.
People like the ritual of going to church; in pre-Hispanic times, it meant going to the mountain, but then they built churches on exactly the same mountains and people keep going there. I don’t think the actual connection with the spiritual part of religion is very intense. Actually, I think most Mexicans in that sense are in a primitive state of religion where basically God is just a provider to whom you ask favors and grace and all that, but with whom you never feel a personal relationship.
Yet your films, particularly Silent Light, have a deeply spiritual feel — the sense of people searching for something in their lives that exists beyond the physical.
Maybe it’s an individual accident, because if you look at Mexican films, I don’t think it’s very common. My characters are not very typical: a guy who wants to commit suicide and is completely aware of it and faces it straightforwardly — that is something very rare in the world, and most particularly in Mexico. I always say that my films are very Mexican, because that’s what I am. But this film, Silent Light, I know could have been done by someone from another nation and nothing about it would change.
This is a movie in which the light and the weather are so present in the images that they seem to be telling part of the story, and the film becomes unimaginable any other way. I’m thinking in particular of the scene late in the film in which the wife of the main character breaks down crying by the side of the road during a torrential rainstorm.
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That’s why we decided to work with an 11-person crew and to invest in time rather than in equipment or salaries. That rain . . . I remember we waited for it for a whole week in a particular location. One week — all of us sitting there, and after two days I began to worry about a mutiny. But I had a really good relationship with the crew, and they were willing to give me all their faith and patience. So we waited Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then on Saturday it was me who got fed up and lost my patience and decided we were going to do something else that day. And that day it poured down. We decided to drive back really fast, and when we got there, the rain stopped. So, we had to drop that for a couple of weeks, until finally there was rain forecast again.
Perhaps this is a good time to discuss the fact that some films fail to fully reveal themselves to the viewer — even if that viewer happens to be a professional critic — on the first viewing.
It’s an important thing, I think, because early on in the history of cinema, we realized that films were a good way of making money, and so films were transformed very quickly into entertainment. Entertainment is designed to always be changing. We see something one time and that’s it; it’s not designed to be studied or to be something that we can get into deeply, like poetry or music. Can you imagine hearing Beethoven’s Ninth only once in your life? That would be so stupid! You have to hear it many times to appreciate it and to know what it’s all about, and I think the same thing can happen with cinema. Unfortunately, nowadays in cinema, everything is about the first impression. But I really think that the films you like you should see all your life. Recently, I’ve been rewatching the films of [Abbas] Kiarostami, particularly Where Is My Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees. Those three are huge, really huge. They are so tender, so pure, so direct, so transparent — and that’s love, you know? They can really bring you to tears.
AFI Fest will screen Silent Light on Wed., Nov. 7, at 7:15 p.m. and Fri., Nov. 9, at 3:30 p.m.