Film response: Silent Night

Stellet Licht
Silent Night
Directed by Carlos Reygadas
2h 25min, Mexico, 2007

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Originally published on Letterboxed with no likes.

This is the first Carlos Reygadas film I’ve seen and to be glib from what I’d heard I guess I was expecting the Mexican Bela Tarr. Certainly, the power over the frame generated by the performances in close-up from his leading women reminded me of Tarr’s direction of Tilda Swinton in The Man from London. In the latter though, the dolly-back and the length of the shot generates at least as much power as Swinton does. Reygadas lets the faces of the two women who share one man, and how they’re lit by what looks like natural light, do most of the work. I saw grief, anguish, guilt, and the dignified beauty of those feelings in their expressions and in how they looked at others out of frame and how they held their bodies so composed.

At least, that’s how I felt the first time I saw the film. On a second viewing, I also detected a tragicomic sense of timing in the shots but most forcefully in the performances of the men, which are more self-conscious and reflexive than the women’s. All the men seem on the verge of grinning, particularly the lead. There’s a scene in which Johan, a married Mennonite man who’s having an affair, stands next to his father outdoors. A few minutes prior, he’d confessed to falling in love with another woman. As they leave the barn, his father says, “Come, let’s see the snow,” in a mechanical way.

As they walk outside the camera passes between them and goes farther. Then it begins a wobbly handheld pan of the snowy countryside and ends up focused on the pair of men, father and son. They’re not looking at each other and are clearly posed and waiting for something, like a cue. Like many shots in this film, there’s visible barrel distortion. Reygadas uses a wide-angle lens even when he doesn’t have to, such as in long shots, so that every natural straight line is curved. Just like the horizon, I guess. It was very noticeable to me. A subtextual reminder that…the earth isn’t flat? It’s also kind of unfashionable these days, when every shot in art films looks like a tableau with prominent perpendiculars.

The two men stand there for a few seconds; there’s some chit chat. Johan requests that his father not tell his mother about the affair. Dad says, don’t worry; this is just between us. Then something funny happens. The actor playing Dad gets distracted momentarily from something down-frame and left. When he refocuses, gazes forward, he briefly looks at the camera, winks and smiles just a little. It’s remarkable really. Is the character saying, Right, we’re in a movie son; you’ve just told everybody. Or is it just a gaffe that Reygadas decided to leave in? Was it too expensive to get another take or was Reygadas restrained by some unstated commitment to form? It seems impossible that it went unnoticed. (Did any other viewers notice it?)

But I understood then why I’d been wanting to laugh all along, particularly my second time watching the film. There’s a persistent irreverence contrasting with the lack of overt humor in the proceedings or the characters. Everything the movie does formally destabilizes the inherent seriousness of the plot. It’s still affecting and beautiful — the ol’ swimming hole scene, for instance, at the end of which the camera frames some pink blooms, and the ground-level tracking shot that follows Johan to a kiss with his lover on a sun-drenched, verdant hillside — but it’s a lot…sillier than I realized the first time. So I was prepared for the resurrection scene of Johan’s wife at the end. (She died from being jilted, sinking in the rain beside a tree and swooning into the afterlife. It’s the film’s most bathetic scene.) The first time I watched that I didn’t notice the tears as quickly as most people probably did. But the duration of the shot made me sure she was going to wake up anyway. That’s an example of what Jim Emerson means when he says an art film teaches you how to watch it.

And this humor, and the self-consciousness of the actors as they take direction and of the characters, and the artful, affectionate conflation of the two, and also a refusal of death — which isn’t a failure of faith; it’s a joke played upon it — reminded me, not of Tarr naturally, and not of Bresson, but no one so much as, wait for it, Harmony Korine. Reygadas is a fan of Spring Breakers so maybe this makes sense. I wonder what he thinks of Gummo?

Anyway, those are some preliminary thoughts of a film that I found very interesting and perhaps counter-intuitively easy-to-watch. Light, even. There aren’t the demanding barriers to spectatorship that a Tarr film has, and it’s far from dour although it doesn’t lack mystery and portent. Instead, it’s full of discoveries. Like the moment when you as a gringo realize you’re in Mexico, not in let’s say, Winnipeg or Goshen.

Who knew there were Mennonites in Mexico? I sure didn’t.

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