AV Festival: Silent Light

“Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not.” So wrote Nick James of “slow cinema”, in his Sight & Sound April 2010 editorial. In defence of the initial scepticism that prompted James’s editorial in the first place, Jonathan Romney stated during the panel discussion that began the AV Festival‘s Slow Cinema Weekend on March 9, that “a style can become mannered and atrophied…”

Both statements apply equally to any legitimate aesthetic choice: from the basics of film language such as close-ups, zooms, camera movement and so on, up to the larger questions such as editing patterns and lighting choices, things might work and they might not work, and styles can indeed become fashionable enough to facilitate self-conscious imitation and by-default perceptions of seriousness or integrity.

By implication, then, “slow cinema” doesn’t contain anything that is inherently challenging or progressive. A key question that helps to distinguish between necessity and mannerism: do the stylistic traits required of a film that falls into the “slow cinema” bracket emerge from its subject matter, or are they imposed upon it?

Sometimes the answer to this question ends up being unfair, off the mark, kneejerk; but it can also be instinctive, intuitive, and open to an intangible, unaccountable “gut response”. It’s why “slow cinema”, as with any other tradition, genre or movement, shouldn’t be openly embraced as an homogeneous body: while the same names get bandied around – Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Akerman; Tarr and Sokurov; Alonso, Serra and Costa – the list is always glaringly reductive not only in its stylistic inclusivity, but crucially, in its treatment of such different filmmakers as intellectually equal.

Besides differing from one another, these artists can suffer their own inconsistencies. You get self-prescribed disingenuous aesthetic regression (Kiarostami’s Five) or a hapless, bemusing retreat into the bleakest of conclusions (Tarr’s The Turin Horse). Furthermore, while you catch three utterly distinctive films made by Lisandro Alonso (2001-2006) that linger with you, three works made in the same timespan (1994-1999) by Fred Kelemen can leave you mixed, or torn.

None of these observations are new; but that they need to be reiterated is indicative enough of the fetishistic ways in which some critics can laud a certain style of filmmaking under the assumption that the films’ stylistic commonalities also put them on an equal footing with regard to content. Which isn’t true; it’s fine to have a personal preference for slower-paced films, of course. But there are reasons why Five (2003) is nowhere near as challenging or even coherent as its director’s earlier works, such as Where Is My Friend’s House? (1987), Close-Up (1990) or Through the Olive Trees (1994). Too much film criticism is overwhelmed by formal considerations.

With his feature debut, Mexican director Carlos Reygadas wore his influence on his sleeve: Japón (2002) is clearly indebted to Tarkovsky, even if it is a crude, ugly and vulgar work by comparison. Its crudities, its ugliness, its vulgarities all emerge from an aspiration to the elemental, and the consequent depiction of an anonymous artist “coming to terms with nature”. Why a return to the “natural order of things” should be celebrated as intellectually invigorating is anyone’s guess. Its tacit rejection of man’s material situation, in favour of a turn to the barbaric, was presumably meant to impress.

Reygadas extends the lethargy of that film and its follow-up, Battle in Heaven (2005), with Silent Light (Stellet Licht, 2007), a visually impressive work set in a Mennonite community in northern Mexico, in which married farmer Johan (Cornelio Wall) admits, to wife Marianne (Maria Pankratz), to an affair with another woman, Esther (Miriam Toews). The simple enough story is bookended by a sunrise and sunset, the sounds and gradual shifts in light of which are genuinely awesome. Are they intended to contextualise the film within the everyday, or is there something more cosmic at work?

Johan is earnest in his rituals, imposing lengthy silences onto his wife and many children in pre-meal grace. With the digital watch on his wrist marking some kind of anachronistic modernity, Johan stops the clock that ticks incessantly through the dining room’s silence. This figurative stopping of time precedes the introduction of narrative obstacles. Later in the film, another character restarts the clock, seemingly prompting a resolution of sorts. The film becomes an absurd cautionary tale: we are not to go messing with life’s rules – they operate by their own logic.

But for Maria Pankratz’s excellent performance, though, an affectation looms over the film. Prior to a(n unpleasantly filmed) sex scene, Johan and Esther embrace nakedly, apparently directed by Reygadas to do so in a mannered fashion. Is the approach symbolic? If so, what of? Or is the director simply exploiting an opportunity to film the unique faces and linguistic eccentricities of his non-actors (most of the film’s dialogue is in Plautdietsch)? Indeed, the cast seem to bring to the film something of their own community’s personality – though it’s difficult to say if it goes beyond the superficial.

It’s equally difficult, ultimately, to speculate further as to the intentions behind the film’s more interesting curiosities. Does Reygadas want us to take the miracle at the film’s end seriously, or is he making fun of us with its po-faced delivery? Or is he just paying homage to Dreyer’s Ordet (1955)? Is it as superficial as that? At any rate, the slow pace and minimal audio with which this scene unfolds seems almost to be a dare, to everyone sitting in the darkened silence of the cinema, not to guffaw.

The film appears more lethargic than provocative, and, similar to that of Hors Satan (2011), the leap of faith it seemingly asks of its viewers probably depends on one’s religious outlook in the first place. That’s the line between being left cold or deeply moved. It would help, of course, if the director’s own sincerity came across in the work.

About The Author

Michael Pattison is a film critic from Gateshead.

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