(This is a guest post written by Robert Brenneman, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. His book Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America (Oxford University Press) will be released in October.)
A well-regarded sociologist who studies Latin America and publishes regularly in the area of theory and qualitative methods recently recommended that I watch the film “Stellet Licht” / “Silent Light” (2007). The film takes an existential approach to explore the tension between morality and desire in a conservative community of Mennonites in rural Mexico. I had not heard of the film until David Smilde recommended it to me, and so I was delighted to see that Netflix has made it available by streaming. I had high hopes. Smilde shows the film to his students in social theory at the University of Georgia and I am always on the lookout for films that both inspire and instruct students. Alas, watching the film was a disappointment to me as a Mennonite and as a sociologist.
First, the good. Mexican film-maker Carlos Reygadas is both talented and gutsy. Both the decision to write a film about Mexican Mennonites and his insistence that the film not rush its characters or its story paid big dividends in the realm of cinematic beauty, if not at the box office. A New York Times reviewer rightly raves about the opening scene, which gives a powerful sense of both the visual and aural beauty that surrounds–no, engulfs–the Canadian Mennonites who moved to this region in the 1940s in search of religious freedom and the right to educate their children in non-state, German-speaking schools. Reygadas shows us some of the power and the glory of rural Mexico in this story of piety and pleasure. But unlike the rural Mexican “whiskey priest” in Graham Greene’s classic novel, Reygadas’s protagonist is neither compelling nor instructive. That is not a criticism of Cornelio Wall Fehr’s portrayal of Johan, the Mennonite father torn between his love for his family and his desire to be with his mistress Marianne. In fact, most of the actors carry out their roles with impressive ability and subtle grace. Opting to fill the major roles with Canadian Mennonites, not professional actors, was another bold move, and one that allowed Reygadas to film almost entirely in the same low German dialect spoken by the Mexican Mennonite communities themselves. Indeed, when the attention is on the actors, it’s easy to forget that the film was shot on-site in Chihuauhua, Mexico.
The problem here is not in the direction, which is unusually bold and beautiful, incorporating long, still shots and unconventional camerawork to patiently unfold the narrative, but rather with the story itself. Reygadas does not understand the community he has entered and wishes to narrate. I do not make this accusation lightly nor out of a suspicion that the director/writer had some sort of voyeuristic desire to expose or profit from a tightly-knit, little-understood community. In fact, I think Reygadas does the best he can to develop his characters as individuals. But ultimately, the story fails because the lives led by these individuals make little sense absent the backdrop of a tightly-knit community that holds to a particular religious narrative–one that derives ultimate meaning from submission to God and to the community of faith. Mennonites (whether in Mexico, Canada, or the United States) believe that their Christian faith cannot be lived out in solitude but relies upon active participation in a community that seeks to model Jesus’ non-violent love by living simply, non-violently, and without the status-judging of hierarchies of title or prestige. Of course, ideals do not easily translate to reality and so conservative Mennonites and their religious cousins, the Amish, have relied on explicit rules and strict measures of social control in order to enforce simplicity and “right living.” Sociologists like Peter Berger have pointed out the irony of a pacifist religious group that practices excommunication through shunning–one of the harshest penalties imaginable given the social world of those who grow up in such a community. But rule following and and punishment for violators must be understood through the lens of belief in a God that entrusts discipline to the community itself. Sociologically speaking, discipline ensures the future of a community with such high ideals. In some cases, it also protects the weak. Take Esther, Johan’s unlucky, even pitiable wife, whose suffering is only enhanced by her husband’s unbelievable commitment to honesty about his on-going affair. Such commitment is beyond belief not because no Mennonite could do such a thing, torn by a belief in truth-telling and a desire to experience love, but rather because no Mennonite community would allow it. Extra-marital affairs do happen, even in very conservative Mennonite communities, but when they do, the leadership of the community moves with exceeding swiftness to expose and discipline them. I once witnessed such discipline when I visited my grandmother’s church in Middlebury, Indiana. The disciplinary service actually replaced the sermon–this was serious business as far as the church was concerned. It was seen as an assault not just on a family but on the whole community. The service was videotaped and a copy was sent to the violator, who was not in attendance despite the multiple pleadings of the church leaders. I was told that the individual repented and later returned to his family.
The point is not that conservative Mennonite or Amish communities are idyllic or that “the ban” is not so onerous, but rather that strict piety and even its enforcement can have the effect of protecting not just communities but families and individuals. Specifically, the proscription of extra-marital affairs protects women from suffering in ignominy and silence of the way portrayed by Johan’s wife. Ethical misconduct of this magnitude would never stay put in a densely-networked Mennonite community. It has a way of getting round to the light of day. And when they do, their protagonists are not given Johan’s luxury of ponderous indecision at the expense of a tortured-but-submissive wife. Reygadas’s film, because it focuses only on individuals and never moves beyond the scope of the family, cannot hope to capture the sense of what it is like to grow up–or grow old–in a dense, strict religious community. The longish final scene of a funeral is a perfect example of the director’s myopic misunderstanding.* In the scene, Johan and his family is surrounded by a handful of resigned family members, shell-shocked but stoic in the midst of their tragedy. I have never heard of a tiny, sparsely-attended Mennonite or Amish funeral. They are actually very large social affairs, with tons of food and hundreds of guests. I once spent a weekend in the home of some elderly conservative Mennonites in Belize (an off-shoot of the Mexican group) who told me that they were spending much of their time going to the funerals of friends and family in Belize and Canada. Nor are conservative Mennonites heroes of emotional stoicism like Esther’s children, who gaze perplexedly at her coffin, almost in wonderment.
In short, I found Reygadas’s film disappointing and the story unconvincing because I saw little evidence in it of the network density that characterizes typical conservative Mennonite communities. That density can be oppressive for sure, but it does not leave individuals alone, in existential wasteland, in their suffering. Johan and Esther (not to mention Mistress Marianne) are adrift in this film. If I had to put it in sociological terms, I would say that the film lacks “understanding” of the Mennonite social world or what Weber called “Verstehen” and therefore fails to meet the criteria for good classroom film–film that helps students understand a social world that is distant from their own. I’m disappointed to report that I won’t be showing it to my students any time soon.
*I recognize that this scene is intended to recall a similar ending in the film Ordet by Carl Theodor Dreyer, so I won’t critique the bizarre nature of the conclusion in the scene. In any event, any film should stand on its own strengths.