Heaven knows

Is Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light a holy light?
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johnny@sfbg.com

In the virtuoso first and last shots of Silent Light, director Carlos Reygadas has the audience seeing stars. At first it's difficult to tell that you're staring at the nighttime sky: those glimmering lights could be electric. But once the camera completes its initial 180-degree acrobat maneuver and begins to creep over a rural landscape, it's apparent that Reygadas's vision is stratospheric. A time-lapse tracking shot matched with a magnified, morphing soundtrack of insect and animal noises, this opening sequence (echoed at the end) eclipses the mechanical spectacle of Koyaanisquatsi-style ethnographic docs and the intimate splendor of nature films. Even if Reygadas is simply being a show-off, there's something uncanny about his merging of the cinematic and the choreographic — the spectrum of light, darkness, and color inspires wonder.

When Reygadas breaks free from human subject matter, Silent Light takes on a mystical air. But those moments bookend a tale of adultery set amid a Mennonite community in Chihuahua, Mexico, and the people in that story move — not for the first time in a Reygadas film — like dolls at the mercy of a drowsy child-god. Try as he might, Reygadas can never quite tell a straight story when he fixes his gaze on human subjects. He leaves the corpulent realm of 2005's Battle in Heaven for the blond hair, extreme tan lines, and reptilian beads of sweat of a farmer and his family. But he never mocks the beliefs of his human subjects, even if his latest film's eternally smiling grandfather figure seems like a creature out of Beatrix Potter. Shades of blue and white, Ford T-shirts and 4x4 pickup trucks, a sweaty Jacques Brel glimpsed in pixel-pointillist close-up, the untamed aspects (and bizarre elderly features) of children, sun drops — refracted jewels from beams of solar light that hang like stained-glass mobiles amid the daytime landscape — and, when indoors, reflections in the golden pendulum of a tick-tocking clock: these ingredients are all as important as the narrative and its mystical outcome.

If he or she exists, God works in mysterious ways, allowing Silent Light to rediscover Denmark in rural Mexico and letting Reygadas try on the robes of Carl Theodor Dreyer — the film's connections to Dreyer's 1955 Ordet (also invoked reverently in João Pedro Rodrigues's cockeyed, blasphemously faithful 2005 Odete, a.k.a. Two Drifters) are many and varied. Reygadas's point of view ceaselessly circles the action, sometimes crawling toward (or past) dark thresholds. But only at the beginning and the end of Silent Light does his direction — with an emphasis on that word's searching as much as literal cinematic terminology — reach a sublime realm. This isn't a miracle — he's already demonstrated a flair for elaborate beginnings and finales: his overrated 2002 debut Japón closed with a marathon tracking-shot trek over a train crash. Silent Light lacks the bracing pairings of the sacred and profane that characterize Battle in Heaven, but its starry-eyed beginning and end prove that that Reygadas's scrutiny of the ineffable is far from complacent. If cinema is a corpse, his kiss just might bring it back to life.

SILENT LIGHT

Thurs/13 (with Carlos Reygadas in person) and Sun/16, 7:30 p.m., $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, screening room, SF

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

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