Not fluent in Plautdietsch? ‘Silent Light’ still scores

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, March 26, 2009 8:02pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

I have reviewed many foreign language movies over the years, but this is the first time I have ever seen a movie in Plautdietsch. They don’t come up very often.

But they have a great batting average, because “Silent Light” is a remarkable film. Plautdietsch (like you didn’t know) is a German dialect spoken by some Mennonites; the movie is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico.

There is a story, or at least a crisis, in this poetic film, which is set (and filmed) in the farming land of Chihuahua. A husband and father, Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), has suddenly found the woman (Maria Pankratz) of his heart, and she is not his wife (Miriam Toews).

Johan hasn’t hidden anything of this passionate attachment, and everyone takes it quite seriously. When Johan tells his father about the affair, it carries the weight of profound confession, yet there is a matter-of-factness to it.

Director Carlos Reygadas examines this situation in a series of long, slow scenes, played by nonactors. This filmmaker’s previous Mexican features, “Japon” and “Battle in Heaven,” were far more aggressive and sometimes deliberately ugly, but you can see it’s the work of the same director.

The power of “Silent Light,” if it reaches you, depends entirely on your willingness to see a movie as something other than the usual series of scenes in which people walk into rooms and move the story along with dialogue or chase each other in cars.

And yet, it builds to quite a climax. A few of them, in fact.

No, in “Silent Light” Reygadas wants to put you through an experience of the senses that borders on the inexplicable. He signals this in the lengthy opening shot, which takes us from a starry night through dawn breaking over the Mexican countryside — but like no dawn you’ve ever seen. Or heard: The earthly cries of animals and insects are like an overture.

Inexplicable, too, is the film’s ending, but if you’ve bought into Reygadas’ approach by then, it makes sense. (He is borrowing elements from some classic film titles, especially Carl Dreyer’s “Ordet,” but you don’t need to know this to be affected.)

Reygadas, like Terence Malick in “The New World,” knows how to photograph landscapes so that they shimmer with beauty, but this film never seems pictorial or empty-headed. And that soundtrack — never has a movie referencing “silence” been so loud with the music of the natural world.

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