The Sound of Silence

A farmer hits the hay with a neighbor in almost wordless film

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Silent Light *** Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque 7:05 p.m. Saturday April 18 3:30 p.m. Sunday April 19

Nobody says much in Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light. But it's the silences that say so much in this long but involving film about a married farmer who's carrying on an affair with a neighbor.

The movie opens serenely on a family at the breakfast table, before mom Esther leaves with the six kids. Dad Johan sits alone for a minute, head down, before getting up to silence a ticking clock. He suddenly bursts into tears, futilely trying to stifle his cries.

Johan then heads outside, hops in his truck and drives off to get his tractor fixed. It soon becomes obvious that Johan has a mistress and that he's fallen deep for the other woman. It's a subtle yet disorienting beginning to a film that has many subtle and disorienting moments.

Silent Light is set in a modern-day Mexican Mennonite community, where folks dress like it's 1569 and speak archaic German. Everything about these people, in fact, seems stuck in the past. The children care for one another like grown-ups, everyone has his and her roles in the household, and there are very few nods to technology (the kids watch TV in the back of somebody's van).

Because of this, Silent Light is deliberately slow-moving; the first line of dialogue isn't spoken until seven minutes in. It's like a Bergman movie at times, with long, silent passages and uninterrupted close-up shots of characters' faces. In Johan's first scene with the other woman, Marianne, they greet each other on top of a hill with a long, passionate and, of course, silent kiss.

It's also a gorgeous-looking movie, with plenty of painterly images — wide-open fields, big blue skies, green valleys and lush fields. There are some wonderful placid scenes too, like when the entire family washes itself in a lake or when a dead body is meticulously prepared for burial.

Yet there's still room for some sweaty — well, as sweaty as two Mennonites can get — sex between Johan and Marianne. Johan clearly loves Esther, but he loves Marianne more. They've been having an affair for two years, and his wife knows all about it. "I simply made a mistake with Esther," Johan tells his father. Johan and Marianne are a torn couple, guilty over their affair. But it's something they have no control over.

Johan and Marianne aren't typical romantic-movie leads. They're homely, paunchy, middle-aged — about as far from Brad and Angelina as you can get. Still, these very plain people have very real problems and very real emotions. And Reygadas stages the elegiac Silent Light with some very real feeling.

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