The curious setting of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light is a Mennonite community outside of Chihuahua. Plautdietsch, a German dialect associated with Prussian Mennonites, is spoken throughout the film, and the women are dressed in dresses and headscarves reminiscent of conservative Amish attire. They do, however, eat tacos.
If one were to enter Reygadas' film without knowledge of Mennonite beliefs and culture, one might walk away with an impression rooted more profoundly in philosophy than religion. Mennonites are pacifists, and strong believers in conflict resolution, and the central drama in Silent Light is a simple story of adultery—or, rather, the process of grappling and soul-searching to deal with the emotions the affair arouses.
Johan (Cornelio Wall) is a father of six who along with his wife Esther (author Miriam Toews) farms on the vast, breathtaking Mexican prairie. Marianne (Maria Pankratz) works in a lonely ice cream shop, and is the source of all the trouble. As is characteristic of Reygadas' style, all of the actors are non-actors, in this case cast from a Mennonite community—and in this sense, little is asked of them. The film's dialogue is sparse but weighted, and given the troubled uneasiness of the characters, muted deliveries are not inappropriate. However, the level of natural comfort in front of the lens required is immense. Reygadas films in long, intense shots, many of which involve crying, and one of which involves orgasm. It seems telling that members of a community most commonly associated with conservatism would give themselves over so completely to a project that paints them, more than anything, as deep, self-reflective, open-minded people.
If the plot is somewhat uneventful (barring a confusing and unsatisfyingly vague final act), the film is a visual masterpiece. The camera's slow gaze only occasionally feels gratuitous, and every frame is a feast of nature, lighting, and complexion. Silent Light is an increasingly rare style of film—that sort in which one senses that it has not been created to cater to its audience, but to challenge it—and while Reygadas' message remains elusive, there is much here that begs to be sought out.