The Droning Borderlands
by Joshua Bauchner
dir. Carlos Reygadas
Nearly all of camerawork in Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light has an unfinished, open-ended quality. Though the shots are delicately framed and blocked, the bodies that move through them—the members of the central Mennonite family, their dusty Ford trucks and cars, dried leaves and other natural detritus—do so with a pace and rhythm of their own. Shots begin and end regardless of the action within.
Early in the film, Johan, the patriarch and main character, speeds offscreen in his pickup, leaving his farm for a friend’s; the camera holds steady, cutting to the passenger seat. Another similar pickup passes on the left at what seems to be a reckless speed. Whether we are in Johan’s pickup or watching him speed by is unknown. When Johan turns in to his destination, the camera again lingers on the road, dust settling in the Mexican morning.
These moments preceding or receding from the shots’ main action often resemble Millet’s field paintings—replete with light, they are rarely silent, reverberating with a heightened crunch and whistle of natural noise. Silent Light is a portrait of the land and those who work it, on par with the best of the Barbizon painter. The most immediate cinematic referent is Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, which Silent Light at times resembles more than slightly.
Both Reygadas and Malick see a traditional, powerful beauty in endless wheat fields and the light that envelops them. In his first two films, the Mexican director already proved masterful at sitting and watching the wind blow through the trees. With the German Mennonites of Chihuahua, in northern Mexico, he has found a serious match, at times companion to and at times rival with his affinity for nature.
The plot is simple. Johan has fallen in love with Marianne. He is honest about the infidelity with his wife, Esther. He intends to break it off at points, but continually fails. He reaffirms his love for his wife several times, only to go back to Marianne. He consults a friend and his father about his situation. He cannot bear to leave either one. His children age. He harvests corn. He eats tacos. He cries.
Johan’s treatment of Esther, Marianne and his children may easily be judged as cruel, but such judgment is useless. At what appears to be square middle age, Johan has found Marianne, whom his friend Zacarías calls “his natural woman.” The struggle that results within Johan is seen by his preacher father in terms of God and the Devil; on a daily level, it is one between traditional family structure and love.
That Johan and his family are pious does not alter the focal theme Reygadas retains from his earlier films, Japón and Battle in Heaven—the pain and difficulty of choice that is essentially impossible. Despite the sexual promiscuity, his fictions are rigorously anti-libertine. In situations such as Johan’s, nothing is permitted without consequence. The wounds that the characters suffer are unrelenting, never allowing them to even move into the realm of trauma.
Silent Light is far from strictly an interior drama in front of the backdrop of a painted countryside. Chihuahua, Mexico’s largest state, borders New Mexico and Texas. Much like those border states, it is home to large swaths of desert, farmland and forest; its largest city, Ciudad Juárez, just across the Río Grande from El Paso, is the picture of a borderlands megalopolis. As opposed to the Amish, who split from the Mennonites in the 17th century, the family and their community is not completely separate from technology.
The unnamed family at the center of the film uses tractors and mechanized corn tills, watches television (though not at their home) and sings along to Mexican pop songs on the radio. Though the family lives a relatively insular life within the Mennonite community, the nearby border is always palpable. Towards the film’s close, Johan and Esther leave the farm on a weekend trip, driving out a dirt road into the frontier’s wide open sky. Soon they reach the film’s first paved highway and nearly every passing vehicle is a NAFTA-ready eighteen wheeler. On this border, despite a difficult climate, meteorologically and economically speaking, isolation is a long-dead ideal.
Johan’s internal struggle plays out upon the landscape of this globalized border. Though Reygadas has discarded the severe tracking and sweeping shots of Japón and Battle in Heaven, he does not take up the dedicated anti-artificial magic-hour filmmaking of Malick. From the opening CGI-heavy time-lapse sunrise, artifice and digital enhancement are foundational in constructing the tremendous landscape. The film moves through Chihuahua with a distinctly unsettling effect.
Though one of his prime subjects is nature, there is little natural or easy about Reygadas’ portrayal. The open-ended visual tactics are similar to Antonioni’s old trick. He sets up a point of view shot, but when the ‘point of view’ character enters the screen, the shot is revealed to be from another previously obscured angle (e.g. Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson on top of a Gaudí building in The Passenger).
Instead of Antonioni’s tropes of modernist alienation via spatial estrangement, Reygadas is obsessed with place; instead of disconnect between characters and their surroundings, his camerawork enmeshes the two. These visual manipulations, digital and mechanical, prick and scrape at the land, leaving it scarred by Johan’s struggles. This audio-visual exteriorization reaches a breaking point in the film’s climax, a thunderous rain that shatters Johan and Esther at their moment of absolute vulnerability.
The touchstones for Silent Light are Carl Dreyer and Malick, but along the harsh US-Mexico border, Reygadas dialogues most strongly with the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. The violence of No Country for Old Men is replaced by the love of Silent Light as the primary mode of human relation. In semi-obscured communities of minorities and marginals, these films remap base emotional survival onto the land; Johan and Llewelyn Moss are hounded all through the borderlands with no respite to be found. The seemingly vast, but increasingly small, frontier landscape imprisons them just as their choices do.
Silent Light’s climactic rain is then the palimpsest of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s dream recounting at the close of No Country for Old Men. The hazy, false memory of the sheriff’s father floats atop images of the barren desert, an evil which will not leave his town. Tommy Lee Jones’ voice, wearied and droning, is overwritten by Silent Light’s rainstorm, immense and pounding yet still droning. A false moment of peace is replaced by a true moment of violence, each with the same upshot: the unyielding borderlands.
Joshua Bauchner is a contributor to This Recording. He last wrote about the import of Anselm Kiefer.
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