MoMA Snatches Two From the Art House

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The New York Sun

Two films from last year’s New York Film Festival lineup are returning to the city this week for their theatrical engagements on the eve of the festival’s latest edition. Béla Tarr’s “The Man From London” opened Monday and Carlos Reygadas’s “Silent Light” opens today, both at the Museum of Modern Art.

Based on the novel by crime author Georges Simenon, “The Man From London” concerns railroad switchman Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), who witnesses a murder and recovers a suitcase full of stolen money. Just as an English gumshoe (István Lénárt) arrives to investigate the case, feelings of guilt start to overwhelm Maloin and spark disharmony in his home. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton plays Maloin’s wife, Camélia, with a dour quality that is unprecedented even for her.

In his first film since his masterpiece of 2000, “Werckmeister Harmonies,” Mr. Tarr applies his apocalyptic, monochromatic vision to genre fare. Sadly, the result feels slight and incomplete, especially for the Hungarian director’s admirers, who have braved his seven-hour epic “Sátántangó.” Mr. Tarr makes it easy for viewers to get lost in his beautifully bleak world and lose track of time, but the subject of guilt that so dominates this film seems relatively minor compared with the director’s usual preoccupation with the eclipse of humanity.

Mr. Reygadas is arguably the most exciting filmmaker working in Mexico right now, and “Silent Light,” which shared the Jury Prize with “Persepolis” at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, seems radically different from everything coming out of that country — including Mr. Reygadas’s previous films, “Japón” and “Battle in Heaven,” both of which are also part of a new MoMA exhibition.

Set in a Mennonite community and featuring Plautdietsch dialogues, “Silent Light” is the story of Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), who is struggling to decide between life with his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and their six children, and a possible future with his mistress, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), that he believes is divine destiny.

The film signals a certain maturation for Mr. Reygadas, who has traded rugged terrains and confrontational, unappealing sex scenes for sunlight-drenched countrysides and restrained embraces. As were his prior efforts, “Silent Light” is a mutation of magical realism.

But without the chaotic, in-your-face elements that marked the previous films, Mr. Reygadas’s new effort seems bloated and uninteresting. The pretension rears its ugly head from the get-go, opening with a seven-minute silent sequence illustrating the break of dawn.

In a sense, it’s highly appropriate for “The Man From London” and “Silent Light” to begin their theatrical runs at MoMA rather than in commercial theaters, because they are indeed art films in the truest sense of the term. But they also call into question the practicality of such films, because the imagery, though arresting, feels hollow. Of course, it’s possible that the purpose of these films is to illustrate the emptiness of existence. But the exploration of guilt in “The Man From London” leaves viewers cold, while the miracle in “Silent Light” does not exactly lift the spirits, either. Some of these striking visions will stay with you, but aside from them, these two films are forgettable.

The New York Sun

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