Sep 25, 2008

NY Film Festival: Silent Light

Or, I beg to differ. 

I see that Manohla Dargis and Anthony Lane, two critics I respect and admire, are both very taken by Silent Light, the movie by Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas. Reygadas is our auteur, our artiste, which means his movies are heavily pretentious. I was not a fan of Japón, and because of that, I didn't see Battle in Heaven, but Silent Light did very well at Cannes so I saw it at the 2007 New York Film Festival.
For a while, Reygadas earned his reputation by staging sex scenes with very ugly, old or fat people. He must have understood that this kind of novelty quickly wears off, even for masochistic cineastes.
Silent Light is the story of a love triangle among members of the Mennonite community in the northern state of Chihuahua, Mexico. Reygadas used all non professional members of the Mennonite community (some of whom he had to cast in Canada and Germany) and the actors are mostly wooden, as most non-actors are. I have never understood the predilection of certain filmmakers for non professional actors. In my book, when dealing with fictional dramatic narrative, actors are always better than real people. In this case, it makes sense to use real Mennonites, because otherwise you'd have a pretentious version of Witness, and that is something nobody needs.
The movie starts with a sunrise in almost real time, so you know that you are in for excruciating slowness and you adjust your expectations accordingly.
Watching a sunrise in real time in real life is a miraculous experience. Watching it on a screen is a bore, regardless of how beautiful the sky and how chirpy the crickets. This is an important difference between cinema and real life. In cinema we cut to the chase and we can still get to experience the wonder. Call me a philistine, but I fail to see the point of a sunrise in real time in a movie. Nowadays I get less upset at these kinds of artistic overindulgence. After sitting through the 8-hour Bela Tarr extravaganza Satantango, I am almost inured to slow films.
Yet, even with its pretentiousness, I actually found Silent Light very absorbing and quite moving. It was interesting to observe the Mennonites, who are deeply religious, but apparently not as prudish as one would think, in their secluded life in Mexico, where nobody seems to bother them. Reygadas chose beautiful people for his film and he coaxed some authentic emotion here and there from his actors. Some of his austere staging reminded me of the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer. It is obvious that this film does not pretend to be something realistic, because paradoxically, the authenticity of the people makes the story seem very artificial, imposed on them. My question is, does the director get off on manipulating people who are not trained for the physical and emotional rigors of acting? This is an aspect of his movies that disturbs me. Am I the only one who smells the faint whiff of exploitation? Abbas Kiarostami also prefers non professional actors but I think he is careful not to cross certain boundaries, and somehow, because of his far superior writing, he gets something much more interestingly human in return (but also very slow).
I liked the movie better before I saw the director in the Q&A session. I objected to two things.
1. He was dressed as if he had just woken up and went to the corner for a bagel. There is nothing more studied than such willful, seemingly careless disregard for the appropriate attire, and I find that obnoxious.
2. He mentioned the word "Bressonian". Pre-ten-tious.

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