If you had happened to mention you come from Mennonite stock in New York City in February, someone within earshot was bound to pack you off to Film Forum to see Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light, the 2007 Jury Prize winner at Cannes. Billed as the story of “a married farmer who, against the laws of his faith and traditional beliefs, falls in love with another woman”, the movie is set in rural Mexico and includes a cast of non-actors from the Mennonite community (Mexico, Canada, and Russia) who speak in Plautdietsch, traditional low German. The Mennonite Church? Adultery? The confluence of my two favorite subjects made it impossible to resist.
Silent Light‘s critics come in two distinct camps: the fawning elite with endless patience for Reygadas’ opening five minute shot of the heavens giving way to a mystical sunrise, repeated at the close like a stage curtain used to mark the viewer’s transformation to another world and back again; and those with disdain for Reygadas’ “artistic wank” and heavy references to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1955 classic, Ordet (The Word), which showed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month. The New York Time‘s Manohla Dargis dishes over-the-top raves and tacitly sidesteps Silent Light‘s theology. So does Martin Scorsese. No one, it seems, knows what to make of the film but that it is beautiful.
A less careful commenter on www.IMDb.com writes, “I didn’t like it. It was so frustrating! I mean, I have nothing against a slow pace, but this was too much, why were ALL the scenes so slow? [T]he noises began to irritate, the people in the film said almost nothing. And I hoped to learn more about the Mennonite community, but sadly there wasn’t almost any comment or scene about that. There were many scenes that didn’t have anything to do with the story. No, the movie with this theme could have been so interesting, but sadly it didn’t happen.”
Ahem. Spend much time with the Mennonites lately? By design, theirs is a slow world: words are sparsely used; quiet suffering keeps the faith; the old world is longed for, where good and evil were undisguised and miracles often occurred. Joy is found in nature, God’s covenant with his children. What Reygadas manages, and his reviewers miss, is the most stunning and frank examination of the Mennonite faith to date.
In 1720, my forefather Martin Harnish acquired 300 forested acres on the frontier of what was to become Pennsylvania. It was a peaceful exile from centuries of Anabaptist persecution in the Old Countries, the Rhine River regions of Europe. After eight generations in notoriously “plain” Lancaster County—where Witness, a more famous movie than Silent Light, was filmed amidst another Anabaptist sect, the Amish—my clan saw a liberalization of the Mennonite Church, starting in the 1950s. My grandfather was the last in our line to farm and my father was never a church member, eschewing the church’s commitment to conscientious objection for a couple of years in the U.S. Army and marrying a woman from outside the Mennonite Church. It wasn’t just my grandparents’ church that liberalized; other Mennonite churches in the area, without the pressures of a condemning state or society, became comfortable with “English” dress, non-farming occupations, and military service.
Other Mennonite strains were less easily assimilated into modern culture. Some followed Catherine the Great’s promise of religious freedom to Russia (what is now Ukraine), only to be forced in the 1800s to adopt the Russian language in their schools or get out. They got out. To Canada and then, again facing the same linguistic ultimatum—English, or else—to Northern Mexico in 1922. Mexico has not been easy for them either. The government has wavered in its commitment to educational freedom and the surrounding populations have been abusive. Some Mexican Old Colony Mennonites have acquiesced to Spanish in their schools and have adopted other modern conveniences like vehicles, but today they live much like my grandparents did in the 1940s and ’50s, without modern technology, on farms tended by their large broods of children, the “plain” women making cheese and seasonally canning preserves.
It is among these less “worldly” Mennonites in Northern Mexico, contained by external contention and steeped in the silence of conviction, that Reygadas still finds the magic realism that matches his storytelling lens. He plants his morality play of love, faith, forgiveness and suffering in the unchanged tenets of the Mennonite community.
The second most common book in the Mennonite church is Martyrs’ Mirror, a 17th-century publication that chronicles the tortures and sufferings of those who died for their Christianity. It’s a mountain of a book that draws a straight, connecting line between the early adopters of Christianity in the time of Christ and the Anabaptists (“rebaptizers”), thus legitimizing their origins as a continuation of what God allegedly intended the true church to be. In his “Author’s Invocation” to Martyrs’ Mirror, dated 1659, T. J. Van Braght writes of the transformational joy of recording the martyrs’ stories as an example of the suffering with which a believer must infuse his daily life.
Ah! How often did I wish to have been a partaker with them; my soul went with them, so to speak, into prison; I encouraged them in the tribunal, to bear patiently, without gainsaying or flinching, their sentence of death. It seemed to me as though I accompanied them to the place of execution, scaffold or stake, saying to them in their extremity, Fight valiantly dear brethren and sisters; the crown of life awaits you. I almost fancied that I had died with them; so inseparably was my love bound up with them; for Thy holy name’s sake.
Without a pope or centralized church making and enforcing the rules of faithful religious practice, Martyrs’ Mirror serves as a guide to suffering in the face of adversity and, importantly, discerning what is the work of God and what is the work of Satan. From the Martyrs’ Mirror preface:
These are sad times, in which we live; nay truly, there is more danger now than in the time of our fathers…the world now reveals itself very beautiful and glorious, more than at any preceding time, in a three-fold pleasing form—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life. [emphasis mine]
In Silent Light, director and writer Reygadas plays the tempter. The film’s protagonist, Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), is a Mennonite farming father of seven living outside Chihuahua. Reygadas exposes Johan’s lust and pride in his response to Marianne (Maria Pankratz), a neighboring waitress. Johan, sure of his faith, suspects that his feelings for Marianne are real—that she is his “natural woman”—and that his marriage to Esther (played by Canadian novelist Miriam Toews) may be false.
How is one to know in these times? Johan follows the bible’s prescription: he watches; he prays; he stops the clock from its incessant ticking. (In Dreyer’s Ordet, it is the Christ-like Johannes who stops the clock to prevent the world from moving forward in indecision.) He cries, at the kitchen table after his family has gone out, and in the car, hauntingly, as he and his wife drive home in the dark. He washes the feet of his children in a glowing scene, their white clothes suspended around them as they float in a pond. He hides nothing from Esther, who in turn watches her husband with a searching, pained face. He talks to his friend, unable to conceal his jubilation in love, singing and driving circles around the field in his pickup truck.
He consults his father, a church deacon, in the cow barn. “I fell in love with another woman,” he tells him. “You’re joking,” his father replies flatly. Then after a long pause, “Let’s go out, out into the light.” This must be the work of the devil, his father decides, looking across barren winter cornfields.
And Johan suffers. Like any man torn between a lover and a spouse, he is overwhelmed by the dilemma, unable to imagine the ramifications of either choice, unwilling to diminish either woman, uncertain of God’s will. If you know what adultery feels like—the unreasonable hope for an undamaging solution—you’ll watch their patient suffering with great pity.
But God and Reygadas don’t let up. “Poor Esther,” says Marianne after she has sex with Johan in a small hotel outside of town. “Poor Marianne,” says Esther before she collapses dead in the rain under the weight of her grief. “Poor Johan,” says Esther when she wakes, with Marianne’s beckoning kiss and fallen tear drop, from her glimmering white-draped coffin. It is an echo of Ordet‘s heroine whose resurrection brings salvation to her doubting husband. And it is a sign that, even in the New World, God still works miracles in the lives of the truly faithful.
Silent Light compels us to have faith, but in what? Not merely in Reygadas filmmaking skills, as Dargis suggests. Nor faith in God, as the author of Martyrs’ Mirror says we find when we suffer the stories of persecuted believers like Johan. Reygadas demands something far greater of us as humans and filmgoers: that we enter into the place where all things are possible, including resurrection, the simultaneous existence of many true loves, and absolute forgiveness. Reygadas compels us to have faith in the suspension of disbelief.
Silent Light, released by Palisades Pictures, is showing in select cities throughout the United States through the end of April.
Ann Neumann has written for Bookforum, Lapham’s Quarterly, New York Law Review, The Nation, Guernica and others. Her monthly column, “The Patient Body,” about issues at the intersection of religion and medicine, appears at The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University, where she is a Visiting Scholar. Her first book, Sitting Vigil: In Search of a Good Death, will be published by Beacon Press in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @otherspoon.