Silent Light

Starring Cornelio Wall, Maria Pankratz, and Miriam Toews. In Plautdietsch with English subtitles. Unrated. Plays Thursday to Thursday, June 5 to 12, at the Vancity Theatre

This is a masterpiece. To be sure, it is a somewhat derivative, sometimes boring, and frequently frustrating masterpiece, but Silent Light is a masterpiece nevertheless.

Shot in the Mennonite communities of Northern Mexico by Carlos Reygadas, a director previously best known for his steamy satire Battle in Heaven, this—the first feature ever written in Plautdietsch, a medieval German dialect—deals with an
agonizingly painful romantic triangle.

Johan (Cornelio Wall) is a God-fearing family man who falls hard for Marianne (Maria Pankratz), even though he is still in love with his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and wouldn’t dream of abandoning their many children. To make matters worse, it’s sometimes hard for the viewer to separate the offspring from their relatives and friends in this rural backwater where adultery is a matter of spiritual life and death, not just a pretext for some slick suburban sitcom.

As virtually all critics have been quick to point out, Silent Light’s last half-hour is deeply beholden to Carl Dreyer’s Ordet. That doesn’t begin to exhaust the director’s “withdrawals” from the art-house archive, however. Silent Light likewise echoes Ingmar Bergman’s obsessively ticking clocks, is irresistibly drawn to Andrei Tarkovsky’s sexy witch women and rain-drenched landscapes, and shares Theodoros Angelopoulos’s knack for turning lonely highways into graveyards of the soul.

Still, before we start accusing the poor man of wholesale theft, it’s only fair to point out that—with the aid of Reygadas’s brilliant cinematographer, Alexis Zabe, and an equally talented team of soundscapers—all these elements are made to seem organic and whole.

So, yes, this film does require patience from the viewer, but this patience will eventually pay off—with interest.