Mexico’s critically overrated Carlos Reygadas is unlikely to breakthrough to popular acclaim with his latest film, Stellet Licht, while Mexico’s highly publicized “Three Amigos”—Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñáritu and Guillermo del Toro—are just that: commercial clowns. Between these camps stands Julián Hernández, Mexico’s finest filmmaker with the greatest human touch—which may be why his masterpieces Broken Sky and A Thousand Clouds of Peace have gone uncelebrated. Humanism is critically unpopular among art snobs.
Art snobs prefer the noncommittal mystification that Reygadas applies to the sex lives of his benighted characters—whether the peasants of Japón, the menials of Battle in Heaven or the community of displaced Mennonites in Stellet Licht who break commandments when family man farmer Johannes “Jaunito” Voth (Cornelio Wall) commits adultery with Marianne (Maria Pankratz) and Esther (Miriam Toews). What could draw American critics and international film festival elites to Reygadas’ deliberately off-putting work except for it grandstanding formalism and spiritual skepticism?
Stellet Licht (which means “silent light” in the film’s arcane Plautdietsch language of immigrant Russian Mennonites) commits art-fraudulence by remaking themes and images from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1953 Ordet—the film about resurrection. Reygadas’ parody has been praised in non-responsive terms: for its light and texture—but not meaning. It’s the same reception Days of Heaven got but outside the 1970s context of re-examined American history. Reygadas flatters critics who bluff past their confusion about Dreyer by latching on to externals as Lars Von Trier once did.
Examine Reygadas’ form: Stellet Licht opens with a slow, deliberate night-to-dawn skyscape, but this is not phenomenology. It’s so obviously CGI, mixing in mooing cows, howling jackals or sobbing humans on the soundtrack, that it defies one’s sense of nature. Terence Davies did this better in the skyscape of The Long Day Closes, which was an homage to the opening of David Lean’s Oliver Twist. In Reygadas’ inept perfectionism, the earth doesn’t move, nor do the clouds. His flaming landscapes recall the declassé Gone with the Wind as surely as the windy grass lands recall Ordet. If there was a joke in all this solemnity it might resemble Tarantino, but Reygadas is a humorless, unsexy filmmaker which may be why this love triangle lacks the sensuality of Murnau’s Sunrise (another art-film citation).
In Reygadas’ facetious approach to his subject matter, he pushes Art buttons: lots of rewound clocks and that big Dreyeresque moment confronting death. It lacks the wit and feeling of Frank Borzage’s Three Comrades where a thrown watch transcends time and death. Reygadas’ only progress past that is dubious: He features blatant sexual exhibition that violates his actors’ privacy while appealing to naive critics. Stellet Licht doesn’t achieve ecstasy or express belief in it. Reygadas is a poseur for poseurs.
Silent Light (Stellet Licht)
Directed by Carlos Reygadas, At Film Forum Jan. 7-20
Running Time: 145 min.
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