FILM FEBRUARY 4, 2009
Silent Light -- Palisades Pictures
Cherry Blossoms -- Strand Releasing
Yet again, and again impressive, comes a film with a nonprofessional cast. Like such recent pictures as Ballast, The Pool, and August Evening, all of which gloried in film's power to transform sincerity into art, Silent Light presents people who have not been actors but who have committed themselves with their entire beings. But Silent Light is markedly different from comparable films. Almost all these people are Mennonites, most of whom live in Mexico.
Germanic in origin and still German-speaking, the people of this Protestant sect descend from forebears who emigrated to Canada in 1873 and then, because of prejudice against them during and after World War I, moved to Mexico in 1922. Almost 100,000 Mennonites now form communities in Mexico, and Silent Light is set in one of them. They can speak Spanish, of course, but amongst themselves they speak Plattdietsch, a German dialect. Silent Light has double subtitles. Below the picture is the English translation for us; above it is the Spanish version for Mexicans. This purely technical arrangement has a thematic effect: it affirms that these lives are ensconced--indeed, preserved--within other cultures.
The director, Carlos Reygadas, is a Mexican who has already attracted attention with two films, unseen by me, that were in reported ways sensational. Nothing could be less true of Silent Light. Here Reygadas dwells in a tiny universe that wants to keep its particularity, in its ethos even more than its social customs. Religion is of course the base of that ethos, but only at the end does it envelop the story.
What we see first is darkness, and we hear nothing. Then faintly we hear birds and a cow or two, and light begins to seep over the horizon as the sun rises. Soon, with great trees as warders, daylight brings farmland alive. Alexis Zabe's cinematography is exquisite throughout, but this sequence is virtuosic. I can't remember a previous sunrise to start a film other than David Watkin's work in Catch-22 (1970), a comparison more fitting than it might seem at first. In the earlier film the serenity of nature arrives to reveal an Air Force base, not exactly a locus of peace. In Silent Light the contrast is much smaller, but for the people involved, it is equally grave. The majesty of the sun discloses family troubles.
In the comfortable kitchen of his farmhouse, Johan is having breakfast with his wife Esther and their six children. A clock ticks. Even if the viewer knows nothing of the religious ambience of the place, this sequence, realistic as it is, seems somewhat abstract compared with other family breakfasts. Both the parents and the children behave as if they were responsible to some authority for their behavior, and not just because grace is said.
Yet through this nearly ritualized meal a tension seeps. When the children leave, Esther stands silently beside Johan for a moment and kisses him before she goes. He sits, thoughtful, troubled. He climbs on a chair and stops the clock--as if to halt a persistence. Then he goes about his farm work. He meets a friend, who knows and talks about what is troubling Johan. The farmer has fallen in love with another woman, Marianne, who is about his age, unmarried. He is as burdened as moved by this love. His friend gives him sympathy, but not in any sly winking way. Johan's burden is made even heavier because Esther knows, too, and, at least as of now, feels sympathy for her husband as much as anything else.
We soon meet Johan's father, a preacher, who has earlier recognized his son's condition. The father tries to console Johan by admitting that he went through a similar crisis when he was young. He recognizes in Johan the manner in which torments of feeling are constrained--painfully but, perhaps, hopefully--by the patterns of this community's life.
The story follows the troubles of Johan's situation, but in nothing like conventional triangle tales. Largely the semi-abstract sense continues: a film that is absolutely veristic in look moves before us as if it were being shown to us in distilled form. This is emphasized when at one point Johan and family visit a town center and the children watch somebody's television. The telecast pop singer's cheap wailing and the audience's rapture are like gashes in the film's texture--a vivid comment on facile emotion in the world outside and the temper of this community, where deep feelings are matters to be reckoned with deeply.
We see one sexual encounter, with minimal detail, between Johan and Marianne, who is as appealing and simple as Esther. She then tells him that, though she has invited this bedding, it must be their last. This is of no help to his internal roiling.
Internal it is. Only toward the end of the film do any of the actors really show strong feelings. Up to then we simply believe them. In fact, the film holds us precisely because the drama is both present and paradoxically private. Toward the end, however, both Marianne and especially Esther burst with feeling. This irruption leads to something that, in textural terms, is shocking.
Throughout the film, the texture suggests Reygadas's reverence for past film art. For instance, the ticking clock reminds us of Bergman; the use of environment to help realize the theme is sheer Bresson. Then, near the end, comes a startling homage to Dreyer. Reygadas calls up a miracle. Manifestly this idea was drawn from the end of Dreyer's Ordet, where a comparable miracle occurs. But from the start Ordet is explicitly about religion, and a miracle seems the apt conclusion. In Silent Light religion has always been implicit. The miracle here seems summoned.
Still, everything until then is so uncannily fine that we feel it nearly out of order, ungrateful, to cavil. The film rests firmly on Reygadas's evocation of bewildered quiet in Cornelio Wall Fehr (Johan) and Miriam Toews (Esther) and Maria Pankratz (Marianne). This result implies a communion between the director and his people that is in itself moving. Silent Light doesn't leave the viewer harrowed, as some great films on marital troubles have done. Yet it seems made of truth. Even that last shift of temper, the miracle, can ultimately be accepted almost as a concession to the characters' needs.
A slow dusk concludes this film that began with a slow dawn. Between the two daily phenomena, we have witnessed something like a modern version of a medieval mystery play. It puts before us the piercing of order by desire, a species of mortal accident that is shaking and terrible but that can clarify the very idea of order.
The German director Doris Dorrie also kneels to a film master of the past, Ozu. The central action of her new film Cherry Blossoms is taken from Ozu's sublime Tokyo Story. In Ozu a middle-aged couple in a small town decide to visit their children, most of whom live in Tokyo. The result of the parents' visit is an immersion in concepts of time and mortality that stay with the viewer forever. For Dorrie, a middle-aged couple in a German town decide to visit their children, most of whom live in Berlin. But Dorrie was wise to limit her borrowing. The nub was taken from the master, but she proceeds with different means and with a rhythm much more vernacular than Ozu's cosmic pulse.
Rudi and Trudi--yes, Dorrie's screenplay dares to use that pair of names--live in a town where he works in waste management. The film opens with a fact that presages much of the atmosphere to come. Trudi is in a doctor's office being given the dire results of Rudi's examination. Trudi does not tell him the bleak news: he never learns that he is a terminal case. (His present physical condition is unimpaired.) Trembling silently in her soul, Trudi suggests to him that they go on a trip--to visit their children in Berlin and even possibly a son who works in Tokyo.
The children in Berlin are attentive but knowingly so. (One of the events that the parents witness, which seems odd until later on, is some Butoh dancing--a Japanese art closely interwoven with the spiritual.) Then, by themselves, the parents visit the Baltic seaside, and there it is Trudi who dies--suddenly, of a heart attack. In time, Rudi goes on alone to Tokyo to visit their son, Karl. The son, who has a modest job and an apartment to match, is more or less pleased to welcome him. Karl is very busy, and Rudi makes his own way around the huge dizzying city--once even tying a kerchief to a railing as a marker to guide his return.
In a park Rudi sees a young woman dancing in costume, Butoh dancing. (A pattern clicks.) Rudi speaks with her later. She knows some English, as does he, and she conveys to Rudi that her dance is an attempt to communicate with her recently deceased mother. This quickly leads to a closeness with the bereaved Rudi. Affection grows between the two, purely paternal-filial, as this waste-management German official ventures into Butoh. (Dorrie has long been interested in things Japanese: possibly she sees a touch of humor as well as amplitude in the union of her culture and this one.)
In these last days of Rudi's life, a fact that he doesn't know until the finish, the company of the young dancer helps him to find new inquiries in himself. The ending of the film, aided by Butoh, crystallizes in a moment of beauty everything that had stirred in the lives of Rudi and Trudi since their trip began.
The structure of the film has a touch of the contrived; still, Dorrie sustains Cherry Blossoms with the conviction of her characters. Elmar Wepper is just complicated enough as Rudi, so that we can believe this ordinary man is at last exalted. Hannelore Elsner, as Trudi, has a face that we feel we have known and loved long before we first see her. Aya Irizuki more than suffices as the questing young dancer. At the last Dorrie reaches the particular success that she apparently wanted. Watching her film is like watching a poignant personal obeisance to the great themes that Ozu opened for her.
Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.
By Stanley Kauffmann