Reygadas, a Mexican film director, is the latest in a long line of
worldly wise artists to exploit traditionalist Mennonite (or Amish)
community as a canvas to express a creative spiritual vision. Reygadas’
new film, “Silent Light,” shared the Jury Prize with another film at
the Cannes Film Festival. It opened on January 7, 2009, at the Film
Forum theater in Manhattan. It is not clear if and when “Silent Light”
will be released for wider distribution. An art film that makes great
demands of its viewers, it will not likely reach a mass audience.
I saw the film
after paying a six-dollar senior discount admission fee at the Film
Forum. “Silent Light” had a greater impact on me that weekend than
several other acclaimed shows that I saw on Broadway (“Equus,” “In the
Heights,” “Becky Shaw”) where my seats cost more than ten to fifteen
times as much. I hope to see it again and recommend it, with
reservation, to others.
The “Silent Light”
story unfolds in the Old Colony Mennonite community of Chihuahua,
Mexico. A Mennonite farmer—married, and father of six children—is
committing passionate adultery with a single Mennonite woman. We see
the silent strength and love of the family in extended beautiful scenes
of patterned behavior at mealtime, at devotions, and at a
The farmer and his
lover are both anguished by their infidelity that, if they continue,
will bring chaos to family and community. The farmer tells the most
important people in his life about the problem—his wife, his father
(who is also a preacher), and his good friend, a mechanic.
But none is able to
help him control his passion. The result is tragedy, followed by a
shocking shift into a magical realist mode that implies some kind of
moves as slowly as an incoming tide. The audience has its attention
span tested to the limit. The opening sunrise scene takes six
minutes—moving from a dark starry sky to the rich colors of clouds and
the rising sun, accompanied by the sounds of awakening insects and farm
linger agonizingly long on the actors’ faces and on simple
architecture, with human figures subordinated as they move in or out of
the frame. Spoken words are sparse. Viewers must listen to the silence
and see the subtle changes in the light.
director’s most bold decision was to use non-professional actors.
Almost all are Mennonites whose ancestors migrated from Prussia to
Russia to Canada, and, in the 1920s, to Mexico. Their names are
familiar to those of Mennonite background: Wall, Pankratz, Klassen,
Fehr, and Toews. All the conversation is in Low German (Plautdietsch) with
Convincing proof of
Regadas’ genius as a film director lies in his ability to get his
amateur cast to manifest the demeanor and expressions essential for his
extended camera takes. No doubt the director was helped by the fact
that the sad and somber mood of “Silent Light” corresponds well with
the simplicity, gentleness, and impassivity of Old Colony ways.
One of the lead
actors did not come from the Chihuahua Old Colony community. Miriam
Toews, a prominent ex-Mennonite Canadian writer, plays the role of the
farmer’s wife. According to an article in the Toronto Globe & Mail, director Reygadas found her
photograph on the inside cover of her popular novel, A Complicated Kindness (2004). The director saw there
“something mournful and broken and perfect for his new film.”1
does not speak Low German, but that was no problem because her lines
were few and perhaps dubbed.
There is an
ironical difference between Regadas’ film and Toews’ novel. “Silent
Light” is respectful of Old Colony Mennonite life to the point of
is the polar
opposite of sentimental. Toews lashes out bitterly against her home
community of Steinbach, Manitoba, for the wounds that Mennonite
religious bigotry inflicted upon her and her family.
Those of us who have Amish and
Mennonites roots, as well as any who care about the fate of
traditionalist communities, will leave this film with questions about
the impact of the project on Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico. Were
these actors from the center or from the fringes of Old Colony life?
What was the attitude of the truly traditionalist leaders toward this
Two of the lead
actors, Cornelio Wall Fehr (Johan) and Maria Pankratz (Marianne), who
played the farmer and his lover, went to the Cannes Film Festival and
were photographed in tuxedo and fancy dress along with Carlos Regadas,
“looking a bit sheepish.”2
remind us of the five young Amish adults featured in the ten-week 2004
television reality show, “Amish in the City.” These are people in
hapless flight from their religious/ethnic homes.
In 1984-85 the
prize-winning film, “Witness,” on an Old Order landscape in
Pennsylvania, prompted a controversy about media exploitation. John A.
Hostetler, an ex-Amish sociologist and writer of books about the Amish,
warned against the corrosive effects of this media invasion. Paramount
Pictures offered one Old Order Amish man two thousand dollars for the
temporary use of his farm. To another whose barn had recently burned,
they offered full payment for an authentic Amish barn raising. The
Amish rejected both offers.
Hostetler predicted that the movie would “signal a milestone in the
erosion of the social fabric of the Amish community.”3 “Witness” did turn out
to be a popular box office success that resulted in a substantial
growth of tourism into Pennsylvania Amish country.
I am not aware of
any Mennonite scholar/expert on the Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico who
is taking up a role akin to that of Hostetler in defending the
traditionalist religious community against outside intrusion. There are
substantial differences in these cases. Peter Weir, director of “The
Witness,” answered Hostetler’s charges by noting that he did not use
any Amish actors and did not film any actual Amish persons. Carlos
Reygadas’ success with “Silent Light” had everything to do with his
Did the making of
the film affect the social fabric of the Old Colony community? Perhaps
not much. “Silent Light” is no blockbuster, and the isolated Old Colony
Mennonites, as far as I know, are unlikely to fall victim to tourist
Both “Witness” and
“Silent Light” sustain respect for the core values and traditional ways
of Old Order and Old Colony people. In both cases there were some
details about traditionalist life that the directors did not get
exactly right. Reygadas has less interest than Weir (and than most
literature by Mennonites) in the social mechanisms Mennonites use to
maintain boundaries against worldly influences. Both Weir and Reygadas
intended to produce works of art. They should not be judged primarily
by a standard of documentary fidelity to Mennonite or Amish social
But what are we to make of the
hints of redemption at the conclusion of “Silent Light”? Here the film
falters. In the end, Reygadas shifts into a fantastic world where the
rules of nature, of time, and of the social order no longer apply. A
dead person awakens and the sun sets in the east. Unlike Christian
images of a future in heaven, Regadas offers a mystical return to the
past. Symbolic confession and contrition are apparently supposed to
make it magically possible for these plain and simple people to return
to a blessed time before adulterous passion, before the Fall.
"Silent Light" may
be stunningly beautiful and provocative. It may reveal the aching
contradiction between human passion and social order. But by the
conclusion I, for one, found it pretentious, confusing, and
unconvincing as an ultimate spiritual vision.
C. Juhnke, Wichita, Kansas, is Professor Emeritus of History, Bethel
1. Simon Houpt,
“Miriam Toews: from author to actress,” Toronto Globe & Mail,
May 12, 2007, cited by Magdalene Redekop, “‘Stellet Licht’ and the
‘Narcissism of Small Differences,’ Rhubarb
16 (Winter 2007): 44.
3. John A. Hostetler,
“Marketing the Amish Soul,” The
Gospel Herald (June 26, 1984), 452.