Monday, September 29, 2008

Silent Light and Miracle at St. Anna

The first shot (a slow pan down from a starry sky to a barren field, time-lapsing from night to an impossibly sun-streaked day) borders on the transcendent. The second (a family gathered around the breakfast table as seen reflected in a clock pendulum) is no more than a bit of arch aestheticizing. And somewhere in between the two lies the achievement of Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas' visually ravishing, but emotionally inert film. Everything from the grand splendor-of-nature visual set-pieces to the picking out of intimate details - a bead of sweat on a post-coital face - to routine stagings around the breakfast table is perfectly calculated for aesthetic effect, the unerring eye of Reygadas and cinematographer Alexis Zabe taking in the sublime and the mundane with equal precision. Then too the picture's aural design is a thing of wonder. Amidst a generally silent backdrop, the filmmaker isolates each individual sound, bringing to the front of the audio mix the banal thud of footsteps or the bleating of barnyard animals, emphasizing the full weight of quotidian routine. Later, when at a key narrative moment, a scream punctuates the soundtrack, Reygadas holds it back in the mix, disassociating it from any specific voice and making it seem rather the muted cry of the film itself.

But for all the care the filmmaker takes in establishing his aesthetic program, his presentation of narrative and thematic concerns remains somewhat diffuse. Set in a reclusive Mennonite community in Mexico, the film centers on the crisis experienced by Johan (Cornelio Wall), a married man who falls in love with another woman. Despite his coming clean with his wife, Johan is beset by guilt and sadness, feelings no doubt exacerbated by his strict religious adherence. Johan's struggle is hashed out through a series of largely inarticulate dialogues and an unconvincing crying bout in the film's first scene, but Reygadas seems little interested in engaging fully with the man's emotional crisis nor in exploring the ramifications of an unquestioned faith suddenly confronted with the realities of life. Instead we get a lot of pretty shots framing the impassive protagonist against an indifferent, if lovely, nature and a narrative that stretches on past the breaking point. With a pair of exceptions - a subtle grasping of lover's hands to stand with the "Rain and Tears" cutaway from Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times and a moment of crisis filmed in long shot in a heavy downpour - there's little in the film that resonates beyond Reygadas' obvious visual/aural niceties. And that goes double for the film's ending, a scene of resurrection cribbed wholesale from Dreyer's Ordet. Without the proper emotional buildup and without a grounding exploration of what faith might mean in the compromising context in which the film's characters live, this intrusion of the miraculous comes off as an empty gesture, a failed attempt to poach some of the significance of a considerably more accomplished film.


If lack of emotional effect undercuts Silent Light's achievement, then something like the opposite marks the failure of the week's other Christian resurrection film, Spike Lee's hodgepodge war picture Miracle at St. Anna. Whereas in Reygadas' film everything is designed for aesthetic effect, in Lee's each scene is shrewdly contrived for maximal sentimental response. The story of a regiment of black U.S. soldiers stationed in Italy during World War II, the film consists of a string of overheated dramatic sequences calculated to provide a potent momentary impression, with the filmmaker quickly cutting to another scene before the viewer can register their essential absurdity. Lee certainly knows how to play on an audience's capacity for outrage (in two scenes especially - one in which the black soldiers are denied service at a diner in the South, then, in a silly bit of wish-fulfillment, return with rifles cocked to demand their God-given ice cream - another in which a row of women and children are gunned down by Nazis), but he's far less concerned with exploring the implications of these incidents. The film's talking points - touching on, among other things, the responsibility of black soldiers to an indifferent country and, more generally, what it means to be an American - are put forth in bullet point fashion, taking us momentarily out of the film's diegesis, but are quickly scrapped in favor of one more sequence of crowd-pleasing twaddle. Setting aside these moments of thematic exposition, Lee's strategy is basically to alternate scenes of extreme violence with sequences of mushy sentiment, the one softening up the audience for the other. Yes, Miracle is occasionally moving - the filmmaker's manipulations may be transparent, but they are far too skilled to be without effect - but strip away the appeal to audience emotion and there's little left that anyone can take seriously.

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