“I hate the idea that film is actually telling a story!”
A striking division in the Cannes film festival this year: between films that offer dark, bleak (read: despairing, nihilistic) views of cruel reality and those that offer an imaginative breakthrough. We had films about abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania (the Palme d’Or), and films about miracles that transform people lives, and give them a renewed will to love and live anew.
The most exceptional among the latter was Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet Licht (Silent Light). The film features — in exquisite slow shots of the Mexican countryside, replete with golden wheat and wide blue skies — a family man who falls in love with another woman. He is wracked with pain about his decision to be both committed to his wife and passionately in love — his guilt exacerbated by the fact that he is a Mennonite — and yet he goes through with the affair.
In the most cinematic scene of the entire festival, the wife dies of grief, crouched in the rain, under wet leaves, while the sound of pounding rain goes loud and a red umbrella flies open and empty into the distance. Her husband carries her dead body in the rain to his truck, sobbing.
It is an emotionally riveting moment that grabs the audience and more then makes up for the slow beginning of the film (which put some spectators to sleep — and which it seems Reygadas will now edit in the released version). From here on, we are obsessed with Johan’s grief, as he and his children say goodbye to the stiff whitened body of his wife, lying in a coffin, in a stark white room.
The mistress — in a surprise moment — asks permission to visit the corpse, and it is then that a miracle happens.
Director Reygadas was in the audience when it stood up in thunderous applause and gave him a standing ovation, much of the public screaming “Bravo” in tears. His film was the only entry at Cannes that received such an intense response. It shows, as he put later in our interview, that people are hungry for belief, for miracle, for transcendence. “I lived in Europe for twelve years,” he later said. “I left because it is spiritually dead. People in Europe live in fear.”
Reygadas’ previous film Battala en Cielo also received thunderous applause — and a standing ovation. The director knows how to emotionally affect, through music and visuals, his audience. This previous film traced a strange configuration of murder and sex, through intense shots of pained faces and vulnerable bodies, all to the intense chords of Beethoven. But Silent Light goes far beyond the first: its simple story, its moral fiber, its depth of vision make for an achievement worthy of his predecessor in the field of miracles, Carl Dreyer.
“Congratulations,” I said when I greeted Reygadas — three years since his last movie — on the roof of the Noga Hilton. “You simplified — and you did it . . .”
“I know,” he said.
He was a bit thinner and more wiry this time, but calmer.
KARIN LUISA BADT: How does your film thwart the concept of “time”? You have the clock ticking loudly in the beginning, and then you have comments on the impossibility of time going backwards, but then it does.
CARLOS REYGADAS: I think in cinema it is great to create your own world and take all the liberties you want. We stopped time to tell the story, a story that perhaps is only in our heads. When the old man fixes the clock, he is just fixing the time, he is making it correct; he is not making it go forward. Every time I have done something stupid or terrible, the first feeling is if I could just go back one second or to this morning, before he died, life would be different. But it is not that I regret the past, because I accept life. But the film doesn’t. It is like Brel: you make the world a better world. I believe in my miracle. Some people think it is only imagination; she did come back alive. Yes, this is a citation: a homage to Dreyer’s Ordet. In reality, I do not believe in miracles, but I think reality is a miracle. I don’t think what happens in the Bible is so different from reality, even if I do not believe in them literally.
And your own belief?
When I was a boy, I asked my mother all the time about death, and what happens afterwards. Sometimes I wanted to be an atheist, I managed, but I didn’t really believe. I wanted to be an atheist, but I believed despite myself.
And yet Battala en Cielo does not demonstrate this faith. Has something changed?
Both of my films have a sense of redemption; life can be really hard, but wonderful, in both.
What is your technique when it comes to aesthetics?
I plan the movement of the camera and the movement of the characters. I use non-actors. I make sure my characters know their texts by heart. We don’t do rehearsals. Many times the first take is the best. I believe this is the best way to do it for my films. Only a non-actor can represent the kind of characters I have. I also have a lot of shots of movement, in tractors for example, to move from scene to scene. For example, the traveling forward in the garage, the traveling forward in the shower. Things like that happen without me planning it. It is a way to approach each moment little by little. It leaves you space to enter the frame and imagine what is going on. In Hollywood, in classical movies, they always started with the building. You get into the sound and space of the frame, the whole world. Each place demanded that the camera be placed in a certain place. Most of the film is shot frontally and laterally, because the place and the people demanded it. The people are Germanic and Protestant; they are visually homogenous and clean. They take the Bible literally, to take dominion over the land and propagate.
Your film is quiet yet quite intense.
I hate the idea that film is actually telling a story! The great part of film is to make you feel, not by the narrative. For example, the first shot of my film is cinematic. The light itself is beautiful. In literature, that does not exist. You can just write: “The sun came up.” The beauty in my film is the sun itself. You don’t have to recreate it. I also like the white light that she sees when she wakes up. Pure white. We worked with particular lenses to do it.
Your opening shot — where the sun rises — is considered the best opening shot of the festival.
I begin and end with stars. This is the beginning and end of the story. There is the universe — the broadest and largest thing — then we go to the story of these three characters — and then back to the universe. It is like our life; we think we are the center of the universe but then we are nothing too.
And land — you seem to love the landscape in your film.
As a child I grew up in Mexico City, with lots of time in the countryside on a ranch with my family. I went on tractors like the one in the film. My favorite scene is the rain scene. The reason I have a rain scene is because we have intense rain like that in Mexico.
I am not particularly interested in Mennonites. I like that they are so uniform, so monolithic. They are all dressed the same. They are archetypes: the mother, grandmother, children. This way, I could concentrate on the essential: the love story. It is a difficult triangle. Here there is a divided heart: a man who really loves both. Everyone feels compassion for each other. The other woman wakes up the wife in an act of compassion. Christ died on the cross for us. It is the same for her. She did this for the love of her man.