|I'll admit to having engaged in a fair amount of eye rolling when I first read that Stellet Licht, Carlos Reygadas' third feature, was to be a tale of adultery set in a north Mexico Mennonite community, with dialog entirely in Plautdietsch to boot. For even though Battle in Heaven made my Top Ten of 2006, it bothered me that Reygadas would once again build a film around a (potentially) controversial conceit. Yet perhaps it's fair to ask – would Japón have received as much attention without the explicit octogenarian sex? Would Battle in Heaven have landed US distribution were it not for its beauty and the beast blowjob scene? Probably not. But has it reached the point where cinematic provocation is now de rigueur for Reygadas?|
The microcosm that is the world of Stellet Licht is no gimmick, but rather the perfect stage for this passion play that is as much about spirituality and sacrifice as it is sex and love. Yet Reygadas isn't interested in ethnography – all we glean of Mennonite culture is that they are a deeply pious bunch with familial and societal roles that are both traditional and unambiguous. Reygadas sees them as archetypes, and in a recent interview explained how this enabled him to "concentrate on the essential: the love story."
On the surface we have a simple love triangle – Johan (Cornelio Wall Feher), husband to Esther (Miriam Toews) and father of six, is having an affair with Marianne (Maria Pankratz). Though completely open about the affair with both friends and family, Johan suffers a crisis of faith (is Marianne a test from god, or the devil himself?) as well as a struggle of the heart over which woman to choose. (In this regard the film shares quite a bit with Valeska Grisebach's Sehnsucht.)
As with his other films, Stellet Licht's tremendous power comes not from its narrative, but from Reygadas' aesthetics; a masterful, poetic blending of son et image. The film exists at the intersection of John Ford and Terrence Malick, what with its epic landscapes, use of shadow, and depiction of nature and the elements as almost sentient beings. (A minor character wears a highly conspicuous 'Ford Country' shirt.) Spiritually there is an obvious nod to Dreyer's Ordet, though the human drama unfolds in way that is decidedly Bergmanesque. The film opens (appropriately enough) with a breathtaking six-minute shot that is no less a recreation of the opening passages of Genesis, with its separating of light from the darkness. The silence soon gives rise to increasingly louder caterwauls of livestock, and finally we are introduced to Johan and his family, sitting in silent prayer around the breakfast table, the ticking of a clock the only sound we hear. The dawn of man indeed.
The remaining two-plus hours consist of one jaw-dropping sequence after another, yet not once does it venture into style-over-substance territory. There's a heightened sense of naturalism to it all, particularly in the relationships between the characters themselves, and the physical world in which the film is set. A scene with Johan and his family at a bathing pool is harmonious to the point of feeling more like a bit of cinéma vérité than scripted drama. A close-up extended kiss between Johan and Marianne in a field of flowers (complete with lens flare) feels almost intrusive. Still, Reygadas does add a few playful surprises including an unexpected weather reveal, and an even more unexpected appearance of Jacques Brel.
The sacrificial act that closes the film (a point of contention for some critics) is at once both a depiction of spiritual immanence (not always easy to achieve in film), as well as a testament to the selfless power of love; equal parts sacred and profane. (In some ways the film is the antipode of Secret Sunshine, but that's a topic for a separate post.) Stellet Licht has stayed with me more than any of the other fifteen films I've seen so far at the festival. A near-masterpiece that should silence detractors who view Reygadas as little more than a courter of controversy. This is a work of sheer beauty -- a film that serves to remind us why it is we love the art of cinema so much.
Stellet Licht screens at the New York Film Festival on Tuesday 2 October @ 6:00, and Wednesday 3 October @ 9:15. Sell your body or your soul to get a ticket.