It isn't careless hyperbole to say that Silent Light—the third feature by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, who began with the art-damaged Japón and Battle In Heaven—begins with one of the most magisterial opening shots ever filmed. Without going into too much detail, which couldn't possibly do it justice anyway, Reygadas' camera catches dawn breaking on a new day in a Mennonite farm in Mexico. Like many of the exteriors in the film, it's so idyllic and beautiful that it would be easy to believe that these farmers—completely severed from the modern world in their dress, religion, and language (Plautdietsch, a German derivative)—had carved out their own piece of heaven on Earth. Then Reygadas cuts to the interior, and it's a different story: A large family sits solemnly at the breakfast table, praying quietly. But once they're done saying grace, the tension still remains, broken only by the sound of the pendulum's swing. After eating, the wife and many kids leave for the outdoors. The man, now alone, sobs in heavy jags.
Soon enough, it becomes clear that the husband (Cornelio Wall) has been having an affair with another woman (Maria Pankratz) and isn't inclined to end it, no matter the emotional wreckage it causes in the long term. His wife (Miriam Toews) knows about the affair, but can't do anything to stop it. Their ongoing miseries are set against a backdrop that's vividly realized, charting a way of life that's conspicuously out of place and out of time, yet appealing in spite of the terrible mess these characters are in. Reygadas, a filmmaker with an extraordinary eye for widescreen composition, takes his time as the seasons pass and the betrayals take permanent root.
Many have called Silent Light an extended homage to Carl Dreyer's 1955 transcendentalist classic Ordet, but the differences are telling. Both films are set in isolation among the religiously devout, and both close with a moment of divine grace that unmistakably connects the two movies. But where Dreyer's world is narrow, suffocating, and punishingly austere—not that there's anything wrong with that—Reygadas often proves himself a sensualist with more in common with Terrence Malick than Dreyer. Two magnificent scenes in particular—one where the lovers kiss with colorful lens flares swirling halos around them, and another long sequence where the family bathes in a pool—show just how removed Reygadas' sensibility is. At bottom, Silent Light is less about faith than matters of the heart, and in Reygadas' hands, the ache is bone-deep.