Carlos Reygadas, Silent Light, 2007, production still from a color film in 35 mm, 136 minutes. Marianne and Johan (Maria Pankratz and Cornelio Wall Fehr). Photo: Palisades Tartan.

THE MEN AND WOMEN of Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (2007) are souls trapped on the horizon—bound to earth as they obsess about the heavens. As the film’s title suggests, this is a tone poem bathed in light—and solitude—but the souls at the center of it all are hardly silent. Watching the faithful farmers engage in their first meaningful battle with doubt, one gets the sense of lives arriving at the brink.

An unmistakable homage to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s transcendent Ordet (1955), not only in the sense of plot (Ordet’s characters similarly find their faith put to the test) but also in its rigorous, minimal approach, Silent Light surveys the fallout of two families upended by three star-crossed lovers. We meet one of the married couples, Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) and Esther (Miriam Toews), as they preside silently over breakfast and morning prayer in a remote Mexican Mennonite community. It is an image of calm, contemplative purity—a family of nine breaking bread as the seconds tick by (literally—each punctuated by the tick of a clock). But when Mom packs up the kids and heads into town, Dad sits back down and begins to bawl.

Johan has fallen hopelessly in love with Marianne (Maria Pankratz), a wife and mother of another God-fearing family. It’s an affair that has thrown his life into chaos. As Johan confesses his adultery to his father, even Dad seems stumped. Johan’s theistic framework is heart-wrenchingly impossible: He knows God has bound him to Esther, but how can it possibly be serving the will of the master to turn away from a love that seems so holy? These conflicted emotions begin to flow when Johan and Marianne meet one day in a wide-open field, the setting sun shining through them as they hold each other in secret. That intimate, ecstatic moment is in sharp contrast to a later scene in a different field, when Johan and Esther—to whom he has confided everything—finally accept their relationship’s undoing. As she clings to a tree in a downpour, Reygadas pushes closer with his camera, extracting from Esther the guttural cries of a woman who has lost not only her love but the foundation of a pious life.

Death changes everything. A rhetorical debate about love and faith becomes disastrously tangible, and for Johan, the guilt rushing up from within is clearly staggering. The setting, once warm and hopeful, grows harsh and claustrophobic. During one late embrace, a character reaches up to blot out the sun, shielding the two from judgment by the heavens.

Those unfamiliar with Reygadas may not realize the degree to which Silent Light is a change of pace for the young director. The richly stylized Japón (2002) captured Mexico’s social ills with the story of a suicidal artist and an uneducated country woman who teaches the former a thing or two about character. The provocative Battle of Heaven (2005) was startling precisely for its lack of narrative, as well as performances that were utterly stripped of expression—not to mention the film’s explosive, gratuitous sexuality. The wholesomeness of the setting in Silent Light—cowinner of the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival—defies the director’s previous work, though his progression toward a more austere style of filmmaking has reached an apotheosis in these vast vistas.

Outside of a few outbursts by his nonprofessional Mennonite actors—all speaking Plautdietsch, a German dialect used by only a few sects around the world—Reygadas strips this universe of emotional extremes. Other than a handful of intimate close-ups and directorial flourishes (a leaf mysteriously falls from a bedroom ceiling after Johan and Marianne consummate their love; Johan and his father walk out of a building into a Mexican landscape covered inexplicably by snow), his camera remains fixed in the background. This is a not a movie that puts the audience into the middle of the action; rather it regards these characters, this community, and this bucolic landscape from afar, patiently diagramming an endless campaign of self-flagellation and redemption.

Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light has its theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York January 7–20. For more details, click here.

S. James Snyder