“You are nothing in the face of this, Johan. It was all written beforehand.” Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) barely acknowledges his father’s (Peter Wall) words, though they hang over Silent Light (Stellet licht) like a cloud. It’s not so much that Johan is powerless or even passive in making what amounts to a choice between his mistress and his wife, as it is that he is an emblem in a film with a political and aesthetic agenda far beyond the character’s ken.
Carlos Reygades’ most recent exploration of the relationship between circumstance and desire (art and intention?) begins with Johan — farmer, son of a Mennonite preacher, and husband to Esther (Miriam Toews) — looking very stuck. Seated at the austere kitchen table, surrounded by his children with bowls of cereal before them, he prays in silence. They too furrow their brows and look serious, the occasional child yawning or peeking to see when the ritual might be ending. The shots of their faces are stationary and straight-on, though behind Esther, the cupboards seem to stretch into blurry nowhere. Domestic, devoted, and confused, she waits for her husband.
When at last he speaks “Amen,” the family eats quickly, mostly mutely, their heads bowed and their attention focused on the whitish substance in their bowls. Johan announces his plans for the day, to get a part to fix a vehicle, and Esther murmurs her own, to tend to the children in some vague capacity. They pledge their love to one another and, yes, yes, the brood must be going: the camera keeps its distance as she stands briefly in the doorway, observing her husband, then moves out, her figure small as she passes by a window in the back of the shot. The clock ticks, the room is still, and Johan, alone at the head of his table, begins to sob.
It’s an effective introduction to some basic themes, including the passage of time and the pain of living. Like the film’s very first images — the camera spiraling in a night sky then pushing in across a vibrant rural landscape at dawn, the light silent and the frame glorious — this interior suggests the vast possibilities of meaning beneath familiar surfaces. Each day brings new mysteries of feeling and faith, and Johan is immersed in one he considers profound. His affair with Marianne (Maria Pankratz) has been going on nearly two years, and he has kept Esther informed since its start. She and Marianne both ask for him to make a decision, yet his promises to do so have led him — and them — nowhere.
With his family — at the table, in the fields, at the creek where they bathe — Johan is sober and attentive. A lengthy scene with all the children in the water, their heads alternately soaped and doused, their pale flesh taut on their fine, small physiques, suggests that he appreciates sensual experience. For all his stern affect as a dad, ordering each child to submit to cleansing, he is also tender and quiet: as he directs Esther to join him in the water, she looks at him for a long time before she joins him out of frame, the sound of splashing the only sign of what they may or may not be doing.
The film does this more than once, eschewing dialogue or action for contemplation. The technique seems less a matter of letting a scene speak for someone’s internal state than a suggestion that what’s going on — emotionally or spiritually — transcends that internal state altogether. Johan talks like he’s got a dilemma (wondering whether his marriage to Esther is a “mistake” or his passion for Marianne is the work of God or the devil), but really, he’s looking for explanations that don’t exist. The camera watches Johan he walks away, Esther as she rides in his passenger seat, Marianne as she leans in to embrace him, her tall lanky form like a succubus, enveloping and sustaining him, more melancholy than ecstatic. As Johan and his father discuss his situation, the frame pans a snowy farmscape, intimating their combined tension and understanding as a function of legacy and, weirdly, property. Neither looks at the other, the wide angle emphasizing their reluctance to speak.
Inside, they talk some more (after the father declares, “I’ll send mother off to do something”). The father admits to his own lusting after another woman during his youth, the son nods, the father warns he must make a decision or “lose them both.” “I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes, Johan,” says the father, “But somehow I also envy you.” At this moment, Johan’s mother appears in the doorway, wide and daunting. Is this an image of Johan’s future, other way? Is she the past he’s trying to escape? Flesh or spirit? She has little to say, in any event.
If Johan’s manly prerogative is never certain, if his longing is unfulfilled no matter what he does or says (or doesn’t say), the movie leaves open the possibilities embodied by the women he says he loves. Marianne and Esther gaze intently at him, each heartbreaking and perplexed, frustrated and empathetic in her own way. He cannot fathom either of them, remains mired in his own aspirations and contemplations. Silent Light doesn’t explain his lack of understanding, but posits it as representative, even symptomatic, of needs and questions that are essentially human. Or maybe just masculine.