Michael Ondaatje once said that there is a limit to what films can do in getting below the surface of things. This might well be said of Silent Light. On first reflection it seems a mystery how this film, the third by Carlos Reygadas, actually manages to work some magic on the viewer without recourse to establishing conventional feelings for its characters. There is no script here which allows a way of rendering people in any depth whatsoever; dialogue is spare, relaying information in brief clusters of signifying words. "This is the last time... Peace -- is stronger than love... Poor Esther," a character says after lovemaking. The very fact that dialogue relays information stiltedly, instead of communicating in a more natural way, is a stylistic attenuation which doesn't build a convincing case for itself in the course of the film, though eventually a bare minimum of dialogue does enable us to discern the basic dilemma here: the issues a married man faces in keeping a mistress (or not) in a specific sectarian community.
On the other hand, within this sense of economy there is a vital sense of how light affects appearances -- all the varying qualities of light as those which in themselves might generate emotion. But that this happens to the extent which is fulfilling as an experience, as many critics seem to think, is questionable. Here, characters function as IMAGES of people -- rather than AS fully-dimensional people -- just as trees and landscapes function in most films as images of trees and landscapes, that is, without further requirements. There is a kind of purity resulting in all of this, and it's as if a mystery of the generic (not archetype) is revealed: as if each image appears as a pure template -- of itself: this IS the image of trees in a field at dusk, this IS the image of a woman sitting across from a man in a passenger seat of a car, this IS the image of a man alone at a table crying... There is a self-consciousness at play in the sensitivity of the cinematographic light, and thus a heightened sense of physical presence. And the performances by non-professionals are rendered in a way which recalls Bresson, but with a more pronounced distancing. Yet at the same time, and unlike Bresson, the characters just don't register as fully inhabiting a world.
Having said all that, I wonder what connection Mr. Reygadas estimated for his project with respect to Carl Theodor Dreyer's film Ordet, which appears the intentional factor in making his own, largely according to the conjunction of the same main event (a miracle) in both films. Silent Light is actually only a very slight homage to Ordet (shared miracle notwithstanding) for all the supposed similarities many critics have wished to concoct between the films. It seems hard to reasonably qualify Reygadas's re-approach to this "miracle of faith" (not to reveal it here), which one had no trouble accepting from Dreyer, who was a man of deeply religious sensibility -- a sensibility generally and notably absent in Reygadas, a crucial point which leaves the comparison of both men itself wanting.
A rather important omission in general from the critical assessments of the film, is the remembrance that in making Ordet, Dreyer did adapt a play -- through which the matter of revealing the inner states and spiritual conditions of the characters depend on words and the nuances of meaning in language; we are communicative, expressive beings (urban or rural), after all. One of Dreyer's supreme gifts was to compliment the emotional weave of the ongoing verbal exchange between characters with visual compositions and lighting, illuminating what was outside of the spoken. This perfectly complimentary method (one even more refined in his last film, Gertrud, also based on a play) -- between word and image -- exemplifies the interdependence out of which the meaning of his work arises.
In contrast, Reygadas favors the laconic approach of images over words, and has difficulty producing the same depth of total response from the viewer. If he did indeed intend to seek out the inner lives of his characters, albeit in a way apart from language, he hasn't achieved much more than a surface of imagistic mystique, wherein things tend to signify only themselves (as "templates") without deeper resonance. On balance, however, it is notable that there is a distancing due to the subtle stylistic effects one can feel even when watching Dreyer's film; a feeling of being at a remove from the events unfolding, even while one senses being suspended in a spiritual dimension, yet in the end, one which still somehow feels like *real* everyday life. This unusual effect also seems to be present in Silent Light.
Interestingly, when the miracle of the former film appears here, it is not a moving event in and of itself; and yet paradoxically, it effectively becomes such -- due to the exquisitely clear, lucid visual presentation: the transference, of the technical qualities of modulated light, upon subjects, into a "miraculous appearance," is total. The face of the smiling or crying one is the the face illuminated and transfigured by this light -- the entire process of which is ostensibly the real subject of Reygadas's film.
But in Dreyer's cinema, the mutually dependent transference of meaning between words and images makes for a more deeply satisfying experience, far beyond mere technical control of the medium. Next to Ordet, Silent Light will seem ever more slight the more critics try to inflate tenuous connections between the two. One is even tempted to apply Mahler's dictum that "interesting is easy, beautiful is difficult." Apropos of the ravishing images Reygadas conjures, however, one might go further here and say that the beautiful truly appears easy, but nonetheless a deeper, more rewarding interest lies elsewhere.