Silent Witness: An Interview with Carlos Reygadas
by José Teodoro

Carlos Reygadas

Carlos Reygadas

The two features that precede Silent Light (2007) in Carlos Reygadas’s filmography, Japón (2002) and Battle in Heaven (2005), are characterized by flamboyantly enigmatic images of transgressions either sexual or political or, in some cases, both simultaneously. The unnamed middle-aged protagonist of Japón travels from Mexico City to a remote mountain village where, following a failed suicide attempt, he has awkward intercourse with Ascen, an elderly woman. Marcos, the obese, indigenous, working class protagonist of Battle in Heaven, is found in the film’s ethereal bookend scenes receiving oral sex from Ana, a young, white, attractive, upper class prostitute. Somewhere in the complex kidnapping drama that unfolds between these scenes, Ana, despite being Marcos’s lover and closest confidant, will be stabbed to death by Marcos in an act that might be construed as some sort of purging ritual for sins committed by both parties—though this interpretation could easily be countered
by several others.

How such images contribute to the narrative cohesion of their respective films is indeed left highly ambiguous, yet close consideration proves them to be far richer—if perplexingly proliferate—in significance than their sensationalistic and/or controversial veneer might imply. The films draw geometries—encompassing elements of socioeconomic despair, gender roles, nationalism, and religious repression and ecstasy—that reward scrutiny, however fragmented their meanings may seem. Nevertheless, these morally fraught, sometimes lewd or grotesque images have no doubt served to widen Reygadas’s audience beyond art-house devotees to include others simply curious to see the notorious work of this Mexican enfant terrible.

As if leery of becoming stuck with this reputation, Reygadas’s third feature appears to be an ostentatiously “mature” work. It possesses a narrative arc that verges on the classical, a relatively sober mise en scène, and an unabashed homage to a canonical film from one of cinema’s most revered masters. Silent Light traces the escalation of tragically disruptive effects stemming from an extramarital affair between a married farmer with many children and a single woman residing in a Mennonite community in Chihuahua. The religious and social customs of this rarely depicted people are regarded with the utmost respect. The sex scenes are rendered modestly and tenderly. The moral dilemma and spiritual unease of Johan, the film’s protagonist, is treated with due gravity. The allusions to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), initially subtle, eventually explicit, are clearly intended not as bits of iconoclasm or fanboy borrowings, but as an urging to read Silent Light as a fresh
contribution to a certain cinematic tradition.

Yet rather than impart the writer/director/producer’s desire to conform to more genteel tastes or prove him a tamed beast willing to compromise a fairly radical vision, Silent Light finds Reygadas’s imagination fiercely alive in spite of, or perhaps because of, the more severe constraints of the film’s narrative or imagistic palate. What most strikes the viewer familiar with Reygadas’s body of work, upon seeing the film’s first few scenes alone—which include a sublime, unbroken time-lapse sequence that moves from heaven to earth as the sun rises over a gorgeous pastoral landscape—is the artistic humility on display. Rather than imposing images of a contrived nature, the author of Silent Light can be seen as a filmmaker who has already developed sufficient confidence to simply bear witness to the everyday miraculous. Of course, the manner in which he does so is hardly artless, hardly without a great deal of strategy and selection. Yet all the creative choices here feel very
much invested in the service, as Reygadas himself explains below, of bearing witness.

Reygadas was present for the North American premiere of Silent Light at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. We had met two years before when Battle in Heaven screened at Toronto and had been in touch while he was in the midst of making Silent Light, so our conversation, conducted mainly in English, picks up where our last round of emails left off.

*****

Cineaste: The last I heard from you, you wrote that you were very busy searching for actors in the Dutch countryside, and I remember wondering, what in the world is this guy doing now? Silent Light of course answers this question, but it makes me wonder why you couldn’t cast your Mennonite actors in Chihuahua, where the story is actually set.

Carlos Reygadas: All of the actors are in fact from Chihuahua except for the two women. That’s because the people in Mexico willing to do the film just weren’t suitable for the characters. The Mennonite community there is only about 100,000 people. I didn’t see all 100,000 obviously, but believe me, I saw a lot of them. Really, the people who might fit these roles are very few. Besides needing to be of a certain age or look, they also needed to have a certain energy. And then they have to want to do it and be available for several months. A lot of Mennonite women have children by that age, so that makes it difficult to get a commitment. I decided I’d have to try casting in another Mennonite community so I came to Canada, and here I found just one. So then I went to The Netherlands and finally Germany and there managed to cast the other.

Cineaste: How did you know when you had finally found the right women for these roles? Did you have them go through anything like an audition process?

Reygadas: No, not at all. Basically I saw them, which implies feeling them. Feeling them and talking a little. It’s an intuitive thing. I just trust what I feel. I have no rules. Whenever I see the correct person I just know.

Cineaste: Was it difficult as an outsider to get access to the Mennonite community?

Reygadas: Yes, they’re very closed and have been that way for centuries. And apart from that, their religion does not allow the graphical reproduction of human beings. Painting is prohibited, so you can imagine their response to photography or cinema. It’s considered to be demoniac. It was a hard, five-year process, making several trips to speak to different people about the project, little by little. Many rejected the idea but a few didn’t, and that’s how I got in. Mainly it was because of Cornelio Wall, the main actor. He is a really cool guy. He has a radio program of country music every Saturday night. I went to the radio station and we had a good talk. He became my advocate. He gave me confidence and others trusted me because he trusted me.

Cineaste:  From where did the idea for Silent Light originate?

Reygadas: My original idea was simply to talk about these issues of love circulating through the film. Is it honest, truthful, brave or legitimate to stop loving someone who you have loved so much and who still loves you? What do you do when confronted by these feelings? These are the core issues. Then the idea of making it in the Mennonite culture just came about because it seemed to be the perfect setting for the movie since there wouldn’t be any distractions, like class issues or preconceived notions about beauty. The setting just permitted me to the tell the story almost as if I were telling a child’s story like ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ Every superficial element is excised and you’re left with the archetypes.

Cineaste: I’d avoided reading anything about Silent Light before seeing it, so I didn’t hear anyone talk about the ending and its relationship to Ordet. Yet what strikes me as interesting is that I thought about Ordet not at the end of the film but right at the beginning. There was something about those first scenes in the house, with the clock ticking and the morning rituals that already evoked Ordet. There’s a subtle, intricate kinship between these films, but I wonder whether or not you were actually thinking about Ordet very much while in the thick of conceiving the piece.

Reygadas: I did think about it. I knew I wanted to make a film about radical Protestants in the countryside who speak a Germanic language, so I knew there would be a connection, though the films are about two totally different things. Ordet is about a miracle, and this film is about love, basically. Eventually when I was building the story, figuring out how it would all happen, the idea of her coming back to life was the only way out. So I knew this was coming from Ordet, though it was also coming from Sleeping Beauty. Once I felt confident that the films were sufficiently distinct from each other I wasn’t afraid of some direct dialogue with or homage to Ordet, which is a film I love, and Dreyer is someone I adore and respect enormously. So yeah, it’s like a little brother to Ordet, but with a different essence.

Cineaste: For me the unifying element in your feature films is this concentrated search for a sort of sacred moment. There are many key scenes in your films that seem carefully designed to facilitate a process of transformation that holds transcendental implications, whether you’re capturing a man bathing with a family he might be leaving, someone’s failure to commit suicide, the aftermath of sex, or the rising of the sun. There’s an implicit desire to glimpse something that’s really beyond you.

Reygadas: I don’t do that programmatically. I don’t think consciously in those terms. But it’s very true what you’re saying. I feel that in the end that’s what I know I am ultimately trying to do. It’s definitely something beyond me, beyond us, that I care for, that I look for. I’ve always believed that you can only think of one film at a time, especially when you’re making them, that filmmaking is not a career, but that each time you’re serving a need and communicating this with each individual film. But the truth is that once someone has done this more than two times, he starts accumulating something like a body of work, and then the work gives you insight into what this person is about.

Cineaste: Staying with this idea of facilitating or serving, it also seems to me that the use of extended shot duration in your films has an increasingly clear purpose, which is to allow something to really happen on its own, or rather, in an organic way.

Reygadas: Maybe this comes from this idea that I feel more like a servant than an entertainer who knows and has mastered everything he’s doing, which strings he’s pulling or which buttons he’s pushing all the time. I just see myself as a servant who brings disparate things together so that through contemplation we can arrive at a place of feeling. Sometimes when I’ve criticized entertainment, or even narrative or character identification, people ask me why I could be opposed to such things. If that’s not the way, then what is? And I think it’s contemplation. It’s contemplation that I’m proposing, primarily as a means to a deeper form of entertainment, and secondarily as a means to knowledge.

Cineaste: Thinking about these long, unbroken takes and the vulnerable positions in which they place your cast members, particularly with regards to nudity and sexual acts, I’m curious how difficult it is to create a comfortable mood on the set, to get people to feel comfortable.

Reygadas: One thing I can tell you is that I do develop strong relationships that exist quite outside of what you see on the screen. A feeling of trust, total trust, is needed, the feeling that they are ready to give themselves to me and that everything will turn out right. They do it and they’re happy to do it and it just rolls very naturally. I’m not interested in giving psychological ideas to the actors about the characters they are to represent. I just want them to be themselves, to be there and give their energy, their uniqueness and say the words that need to be said in their proper moments, and then the whole thing builds up together through cinematic means. So it’s not difficult to create the atmosphere at all.

Cineaste: Now that you have this body of work to look back on, these three very distinctive features, do you have a clear idea of what your method of filmmaking is, or of what sort of film you want to create?

Reygadas: In a way, yes. As I told you, when you look back everything connects and you can see a totality. I do have a method, but I do not believe that that method is universally applicable even for me. I really feel that each time you need to think of a new way of doing things. Even though everything you’ve done accumulates, you need to pretend it doesn’t exist in a way. I just need to serve a certain need.

José Teodoro is a critic, playwright and filmmaker based in Toronto.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste, Inc.