(Original title: Stellet Licht)
It’s not easy to talk in detail about Silent Light; the film is fundamentally founded upon the strength of its images, to the point that there is little room for speaking within it and even less time for the small talk and exchanges of trivia which make up most conversations in film, and daily life. If its pieces of dialogue were replaced with title cards, you would have an excellent silent film, for the cinematography communicates its story with far greater eloquence than the simple words its characters can speak. In doing so, Silent Light brings its audience back to one idea, or ideal, of how movies should be: images that are used to tell a story.
As with many silent films, Silent Light inhabits a kind of childlike simplicity—it expresses many things within the range of simple feelings, but cannot reach for complex intellectual stimulation: Johan, married, falls in love with another woman. He is honest about the affair with his wife, and this creates tension within their household. He cannot bring himself to leave her, or stop seeing the other.
There are only a few steps to the narrative, but it becomes elevated by how beautiful the telling is. A kind of aching beauty of wistful nostalgia and colder realities permeates through the film, down even to its lingering aside shots of objects and locations. The camera assumes the contemplative air of a neutral observer stopping by, ready to politely look away at some other detail when an emotional scene takes place; its neutrality reflects the sympathetic attitude of supporting characters like Johan’s father, or a friend who advises Johan that his destiny may lie with the second woman. Johan agrees… and then the scene continues on as he gets into his car and sings along with a song that’s playing on a nearby radio. Destiny, like everything else, exists alongside matters of the moment.
I have read that all of the actors were nonprofessionals. If that’s true, it comes through only in the absolute sincerity of their performances; I include them as part of everything I’ve said about the images up until now, for their emotion, their presence, their feeling is as much a part of the strength of these images as the lighting and other camerawork. Without complicated lines to memorize, an obvious difficulty of acting is removed and replaced with an even harder one: to communicate the state of a character equally well without as many words to fall back on or play against. (The film has many scenes with dialogue, so I may appear to be exaggerating my impressions, but please note how sparse and direct the dialogue, on the whole, tends to be. It is also worth noting that there are currently no “Memorable Quotes” on the film’s IMDB page; the lines are not especially memorable in themselves, and are given currency only within the performances they are a part of.)
Past a certain point, I eventually began to think the film was cheating slightly: it is easier to make what is taking place look beautiful when nothing much is taking place; because the film sets such simple goals for itself, of course its makers can do them exceedingly well. These days I usually get the impression that ambiguity is an overused, lazy device to end artistic films without upsetting the audience, but in this case I was relieved to find that the ending does something outside the range of scenes that precede it. When a film begins at an extremely high standard and continues at that same peak, I often get the impression that it could have “done more”, but that seems unfair. Considered as a whole, Silent Light has done enough.