Sunday Morning! “Silent Light”
At first the screen is pure black until a few tiny stars, like pinpricks in a burial shroud, appear in the darkness. Within a few moments, a grey cloud floats into view, and then another. We begin to see treetops bristling around the bottom of the screen as the camera pans slowly downwards and the rosy-fingered dawn slowly saturates the sky. Within a few more minutes, the sun has risen and the light that fills the horizon could be seen as God’s presence, and most likely is to the Mennonite community that forms the world of this film. The entire shot- filmed with the aid of time lapse- has been compared to the Biblical creation story. It is absolutely breathtaking.
This week, I watched Silent Light, perhaps the most sincere adultery story I’ve ever seen and likely the most spiritual. Typically, stories about infidelity are also about small-scale conspiracies and people’s lies to each other and to themselves. There are thousands of them in world literature (The Iliad, after all, hinges on a wife’s infidelity) and I suppose they’re eternally interesting because lust and lies remain compelling. In this story, however, everyone is being honest and sincere and even kind about what’s going on. In the end though, kindness can only get you so far.
The film takes place in a Mennonite community in northern Mexico and its spoken dialogue is primarily in the Plautdietsch language, or Mennonite Low German. The famous pacifism of the Anabaptists seems to have seeped into the movie, which unfolds in long takes and deep silences. I suspect there are not many more than a hundred shots in the entire film, all beautifully composed. All of the dialogue typed out could probably fit on a single sheet of paper. I found its glacial pace hypnotic and soothing (and reminiscent of another film we’ve discussed: Stalker); others might find it sleep-inducing.
The story centers on a husband, Johan (Cornelio Wall) who has a loving wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and beautiful children. Unfortunately, he has fallen in love with a friend, Marianne (Maria Pankratz). In one of the early scenes, we see Johan crying alone in his kitchen and it’s clear the pain is sincere; he tells his friend Zacharias it’s like lead is being poured into his guts. His friend believes he has found his natural love and tells him: “If that is your destiny, you’ll have to be brave.” Johan responds: “A brave man makes destiny with what he’s got.” What he’s got is a loving wife and, as the song says, love the one you’re with.
But, what if he’s found his spiritual twin, just too late?
His father tells him that what’s happening to him is “the work of the enemy”, but to Johan, it feels as finding Marianne was “God’s doing.” And that’s how love feels, isn’t it? I’ve thought of it as finding the person who acts like your amplifier: they hear your strange frequency and when you plug into them, they turn it up. For Marianne, the other woman, it is “the saddest time of my life… but also the best.” She believes that they must end the open affair, and Johan tries, and fails, until it is too late.
As the wife, Miriam Toews has little to do aside from looking at her husband sadly for the first two-thirds of the film, until she delivers a climactic monologue that is calmly delivered and quietly devastating, telling her husband “it was just being beside you was the pure feeling of being alive. I was part of the world. Now I am separated from it.” There is a scene with her alone scored by the rain that is one of the best examples of pure acting you’re likely to see.
I’ve been going through a breakup recently and perhaps the saddest part is how easy it is this go ’round. I’ve had ten primary partners in my life and the worst breakup, the one I never thought I’d live through, was the first big heartbreak, when I was about 23 years old. I remember crying in a rented basement for a year. Even when I went through the divorce, I remember thinking “At least it’s not like that first heartbreak.” Today, I’m friends with that first heartbreaker, but then, it was like being separated from the world at the bottom of the sea. This time, it feels like a sort of amnesia; I can’t tell if I’m waking up from it or entering it.
I was struck throughout the film by how different this society is from the one in which I live, and how unfair it felt for the women to wait for Johan to make up his mind. Everyone is patient with him and kind. I think there’s only one line of dialogue in which anyone curses another. I was struck too by the closeness of this community and the genuine care they have for each other. All three members of the triangle have a scene in which they reflect on the pain of one of the others, saying “Poor (so and so).”
And then the ending is an ambiguous miracle- it could be a dream or a hallucination as well, but I don’t think so. I think what we see is what happens; I think the three of them have been granted something miraculous that saves Johan from this self-inflicted pain. I was taken aback because it’s an even more deeply religious movie than the one we just discussed, First Reformed. That film dealt with our responsibility to the world; this one is about the world created between us as individuals, and how its destruction can be just as catastrophic.
So, what are YOU watching, reading, playing, pondering, or creating this weekend?