The Heart of the Matter

By Jason Wood

silent-light-carlos-reygadas.jpgSilent Light, 2007

Carlos ReygadasSilent Light finds a miraculous calm in the midst of turmoil

With the likes of Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu amongst his admirers, Carlos Reygadas has emerged as the Mexican filmmaker’s filmmaker. Moreover, with his three features to date, he has proved himself amongst the most distinctive voices in contemporary world cinema.

Born in 1971, Reygadas trained in international law at the University of Mexico. After completing his studies he relocated to London to take a Master’s degree. From there he began working for the Mexican Foreign Service at the United Nations, preparing work for the International Penal Court. In 1997 Reygadas decided to quit his profession and moved to Brussels where he discovered a passion for cinema, visiting a cinematheque and voraciously viewing films by Rossellini, Dreyer and Bresson. Rossellini would exert a mammoth influence in terms of allowing the reality of the filming environment to shape and inform the narrative; Bresson would likewise prove instructive in regards to working with non-professional actors and the adoption of a naturalistic approach to sound. It was however Tarkovsky that would really open the fledgling filmmaker’s eyes. Whilst preparing the necessary materials to gain entry to film school Reygadas met Diego Martinez Vignatti, an Argentinean director of photography who would work with the Mexican on a number of shorts and, later on Reygadas’ remarkable Japón (2002) and Battle in Heaven (2005)

Completed with a team of newcomers, Japón, Reygadas’ self-produced debut feature, was presented at the 2002 Rotterdam and Cannes film festivals. One of the most audacious films of its year, it received a Special Mention for the Camera d’Or. Coming hot on the heels of works by González Iñárritu and Cuarón, although aesthetically a million miles from both Amores Perros (2000) and Y Tu Mamá También (2001), the film was heralded as completing a major renaissance in Mexican filmmaking. Shot in Super16 Scope and making phenomenal use of the natural habitat, this parable-like tale was also remarkable for a final tracking shot set to Arvo Pärt’s Cantus. Critically acclaimed for its uncompromising aspiration towards a transcendental form of filmmaking, Japón also established something of a rod for the director’s back in terms of its enigmatic title and inflammatory cross-generational sex scene.

Described by its creator as “an existentialist drama dealing with moral corruption”, Battle in Heaven similarly screened at Cannes to a mixed chorus of controversy and acclaim. Marcos (Marcos Hernández) and his wife (Berta Ruiz) kidnap a baby for ransom money but the plot goes terribly wrong when the infant dies. Seeking spiritual salvation, Marcos confesses his crimes to Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), the prostitute daughter of the wealthy general that Marcos chauffeurs, and so sets himself down a path of reckless abandon. The film climaxes at the Basilica during an intense religious festival in a teeming Mexico City.

Presenting a characteristically uncompromising vision of human folly, Reygadas’ compelling second feature is also receptive to the possibility of redemption and grace. Again Reygadas almost exclusively casts non-professionals (Hernández worked as a driver to Reygadas’ father at the ministry of culture), claiming that his requirement for the most natural performances possible necessitates a total lack of ‘acting’, from real people who don’t try to communicate meaning. Reygadas has since refuted charges that he exploits non-actors for his own artistic purposes, pointing to the trust that exists between himself and his players. The director has similarly dismissed accusations that he courts attention by deploying deliberately provocative images in his work. Battle in Heaven again deals with moral and spiritual issues that are irrefutably universal, but the closing pilgrim’s procession to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe seems to suggest a more concrete grappling with the notion of Méxicanidad.

Having recently turned his hand to producing with Amat Escalante’s Sangre (2005), this year saw Reygadas deliver his most assured feature yet. Inspired by primal, neo-Biblical imagery and the work of Dreyer and Malick, Silent Light is a moving mediation on love and betrayal set amidst a Mennonite community in Chihuahua, northern Mexico. Shot almost entirely in the Mennonite’s traditional Plautdietsch language and shorn of the sexual explicitness of his previous work, Reygadas again uses non-actors to superlative effect, casting them for their Kuleshov-like expressiveness and teasing out performances of remarkable intensity. Though overlooked for the Palme d’Or, the film did see Reygadas presented with a much deserved Best Director award. With its extraordinary long take sequences book-ending a minimalist narrative concerning an illicit affair; it is arguably a masterpiece.

Jason Wood: Does Silent Light feel like a natural transition from your previous work?

Carlos Reygadas: I don’t even feel that a transition occurred. For me, each film is individual. The same thing was said to me about Japón and Battle in Heaven because of the move from the country to the city and the speed of the editing. This one is again different. It’s already been pointed out that all the shocking scenes are gone but the truth is that I just feel that each work is a separate entity and each has its own demands. That’s how I create them and that’s how I feel them. It is a fact of course that sometimes events evolve from your previous work. I remember clearly that after Japón I wanted my next film to be faster and less calm, and that’s why I shot in the city. For Silent Light I wanted the opposite. We shot in Chihuahua and we had a crew of just eleven. This included production assistants, so on the actual set we were often just seven or eight in number. We shot for three and a half months and were very much in contact with nature; I really wanted that kind of calmness around us.

silent-light-carlos-reygadas-2.jpgSilent Light, 2007

JW: Location acts as a character in your work. This is certainly true of Silent Light.

CR: I always want to communicate a particular feeling and this time that feeling was of the notion of a divided heart and the pain this causes. I had this idea in mind when I did some travelling through the north of Mexico. It was during this road trip that I came to know and understand better the Mennonites. Before that my experience of them was similar to that of most other Mexicans, encountering them at traffic lights selling their cheese. On my travels I realised that this community was uniform or monolithic and thought that this was the perfect place for a completely objective story where the nuances and little details wouldn’t divert attention from my main thrust. I wanted there to be certain archetypes: the woman, the man, the child, the grandfather, without people being distracted by the fact that some wore better clothes and had more wealth than others. The nature and the landscape slowly imposed itself on the film. The place is so powerful and so beautiful that you can’t help but shoot it like that.

JW: Was it difficult to gain access to film in the community and what is their history in Mexico?

CR: The Mennonites are an Anabaptist group from the north of Germany and Holland. Their leader, Menno Simons, advocated pacifism and when they refused to go into the European armies – and Europe was always fighting – they were hounded all over the world until they arrived in Canada. Because of their language, shortly after the First World War they suffered persecution in Canada and so they relocated to Mexico. They have retained certain radicalism in the sense of not using electricity, engines or any modern element that did not exist in the Sixteenth century. They also kept their Plautdietsch language and rejected local languages. One of their main principles is that the graphic depiction of human beings is prohibited, even in drawing. Televisions and cinema were absolutely out of the question.

JW: I take it they hadn’t seen your other films then.

CR: Absolutely not. Towards the end of shooting, a few of the more modern members of the community began to check my work on the internet; understandably, this made me very afraid that they would want to kick out this ‘sexually obsessed’ man as soon as possible. I have an uncle who owns some land in the area and has worked with the Mennonites for many years and before the film he told me that mine was an impossible task. I was initially rejected by many people and in many places and at a certain point I thought that I was going to have to throw in the towel. We kept on searching and eventually we got to know some people and they started opening other doors for us. Little by little we made penetrations and gained a degree of acceptance. I can’t say that everyone accepted us. In restaurants there were some people who would not even look at us. One of the other principles of the original Mennonites is the idea of having to make one’s own decisions and be responsible before God, so they also did not bother or harangue either the people that decided to work on the film or myself and the crew.

JW: Another characteristic of your work has been your decision to work with non-professional actors. This pays particular dividends in Silent Light.

silent-light-carlos-reygadas-3.jpgSilent Light, 2007

CR: It was out of the question to use anyone other than real Mennonites. To start with they are the only people – as I understand it at least – who speak Plautdietsch. It’s clear that a Mennonite could not be better interpreted by anyone other than another Mennonite. It was a question of finding people who would match in both looks and energy characters that I had invented in my head. I was really happy with Cornelio Wall Fehr and Miriam Toews (who play the husband and wife) but María Pankratz (the lover) was initially more difficult. What I decided to do was let Pankratz inform the film and now I am happy with her too. All of the main cast were from the region in which we shot but Miriam and María I had to cast from elsewhere because casting the female characters from this community proved impossible, due to the clash between the tradition of the Mennonites and Mexican machismo. I tried to cast the women from the Mennonite community in Manitoba. This also proved difficult but I did manage to find Miriam. For María I had to go to Germany and cast from the Mennonite community there.

JW: How did you gain their trust?

CR: It was difficult. Cornelio programmes a Saturday night radio show that plays country music so was much more open to new experiences; he was already an outcast amongst his peers and found it exciting to think of himself as an actor. The others saw the experience as acting as a document for their culture. The language is slowly disappearing, certainly amongst the younger generations, so there was a sense that the film would preserve their original language. Miriam and María were also closer to modernity, so for them I think the question of involvement was always slightly easier. It’s curious to see that there are levels of modernity for this community. The Canadian and German Mennonites are the most modern but the Mexican Mennonites are slowly starting to develop a more modern sensibility and culture. The Mexican Mennonites that oppose the government installing electricity are beginning to leave for communities in Belize, Bolivia and elsewhere.

JW: It must have been another challenge shooting in a language that you do not speak.

CR: The main difficulty was that I never knew if they were saying what I’d asked them to, but where I was looking for nuances that did not happen on certain words I knew that I could correct this through the subtitles. I was also much more interested in the musicality of the sounds. Cornelio also speaks Spanish so we were able to converse and he could act as his own translator and also assist with the others. With Miriam I was able to speak English. For María, she would speak German to a German speaking Mexican translator. She would then transfer his German into Plautdietsch.

JW: This is the first film you have made without your regular cinematographer, Diego Vignatti. How did the new relationship with Alexis Zabé develop?

silent-light-carlos-reygadas-4.jpgSilent Light, 2007

CR: Quite simply Diego wasn’t available so I had to find someone else and also to find someone who would be prepared to commit to three or four months of very modest living conditions as we were living in Mennonite houses and working very hard Monday to Saturday. We also had to wait for a lot of the natural elements to come. A lot of cinematographers don’t like to work in this way, waiting for natural rain and having personally to carry a lot of equipment. There was also the issue of working with natural light. The film doesn’t contain any special lighting. The only artificial lighting we used was from the light bulbs in the houses. Alex’s only previous film was Fernando Eimbcke’s Duck Season. This is shot in black and white and is very interesting visually. We worked with particular lenses from the 1960s that we bought on the internet. We strove to achieve a very particular look in which there is a certain out of focus quality to the images at the centre of the frame. Alex was ready and willing and able to grasp these ideas and concepts and worked closely with me on developing them.

JW: What visual influences did you draw upon?

CR: Sometimes influences can be a coincidence and completely unconscious. When I was shooting the house in the beginning with the pick-up truck and the trees it makes me feel a Camille Corot painting. People are beginning already to talk about Malick, because as soon as someone shoots a scene involving nature then his name is mentioned. Dreyer is of course an influence. The end is a direct homage to his Ordet. Those of a less charitable nature may call if theft. What I wanted to talk about was this pain in the heart and then the death that comes from this pain. The only way to find an exit out of that was to bring her back alive and of course in a community that is Northern and Protestant and rural the relationship with Ordet is very close even if the philosophy is totally different. It is however true to say that Ordet was totally present in my mind throughout the shoot, especially at the end of the film.

JW: Religion is of course another thread in the film and in this instance the tone is especially respectful, reverential almost.

CR: This is perhaps my personal vision of things. That passes to the camera without my even thinking about it. I was worried that this time it could be a danger given the nature of the community, who I mainly wanted to work with due to the monolithic nature I previously mentioned. I was worried that the religious aspect could interfere with the narrative in terms of Johan refusing to leave his wife for fear of divine retribution or rejection from society. Exactly the same story could have been set amidst Atheists in Paris for example, as he is suffering because he loves two women and has to deal with that. I really tried to put religion to one side and hope that most people would recognise the conflict of the man as the central issue of the film, as opposed to any religious conflict. I do think that the fact that it is set amongst a religious community helps the moment in the film when a miracle arrives. It makes the leap of faith that the film asks you to take perhaps easier to accept.

JW: Given that, where did the title for your new film come from? I know that people often ask you about the titles of your work.

CR: With Japón it was the title, with Battle in Heaven it was the blow-job. With Silent Light it will probably be the tractors. I think that this time the title fits the place very well as it doesn’t feel located in time and space. It also feels that something miraculous can happen at any moment because of its natural characteristics. We really went for this totally white light, aided by our antique Russian lenses, the film stock and our filtering process. This helped in terms of having this brightness in the place because in the end light is the source of life. Also, when the light comes in so does the silence.

JW: I’ve previously always enjoyed the way that you use music. Here there is virtually no music, bar Jacques Brel.

CR: When I wrote the screenplay I thought of having music for the shot where the butterfly flies out of the room but then, after I played back what I had shot, I realised that there was no better sound for this sequence than what was already there. I love Jacques Brel and so that moment is pure homage. Of course, because of my nature I have to justify everything, so Brel perhaps also represents something of Johan’s inner strength.

JW: And you pay particular attention to acoustics.

CR: I am obsessed with sound and invariably do the sound myself in terms of atmospherics. Two months after shooting I went back alone to capture all the aural atmospherics. I really paid attention to different microphones. The development of the microphone is an un-heralded contribution to cinema. Arguably, the images haven’t changed that much since the ’40s but sound has altered radically. Every three years there is a new advance. For me the essence of cinema is what you see, your brain feels it as if it is the reality in front of you. There is a filter that says of course it is not, it is a script, but you perceive it as if it is reality. The image is totally real for us and the sound helps the image so much in the sense of giving it its specific intention. You can also cheat a lot with sound. Watch Top Gun or Jurassic Park for example on mute and you can see how important the audio is to the film. Without the sound they are like cardboard. I prefer not to cheat with the sound, but to use it in a purer form.

JW: Tellingly, I find more humour in this film than previously.

CR: Silent Light is heavy and very loaded and I did want there to be moments where you could relax a little. The Mennonites see the humour too. The conversations about mechanics tickled them.

JW: So you are demanding of audiences but also equally respectful of them.

CR: It’s true I really do respect people, and especially the viewer. For me making a film is like making a meal and then sharing it. Of course, when you make a meal you hope that everyone will like it, but if someone doesn’t then there’s not a whole lot that you can do about it.

Silent Light (‘Stellet Licht’) is released in the UK by Tartan in December. Reygadas’ previous features are both available on dvd.

Carlos Reygadas is also a producer (working with colleagues who have moved into direction) of the Mexican feature Sangre and the Spanish film La Influencia by Pedro Aguilera (screening in this year’s London Film Festival). He “thinks of it as a kind of duty. When you feel someone has talent you have a responsibility to help them.” He is also producing the new film by Artur Aristakisian, the director of A Place on Earth and Palms, the latter available exclusively on dvd from

Jason Wood is a writer, film programmer and documentary maker. He has published books on Mexican cinema, American independent film, road movies and Nick Broomfield, as well as a collection of interviews with world directors, published by Wallflower Press.