Johan is torn apart by the conflict between duty and desire, a war whose peripheral victims languish in silent desperation while he fulfils his naked greed. Johan is the Patriarch of a religious family, his life slowly ticking away, burdened by the love for another woman. Johan’s guilt, like an accusatory beam of an interrogator’s light, has measurable weight but remains silent in those vast empty spaces between heavenly bodies.
Director/writer Carlos Reygadas begins the film with a beautiful sunrise, the stars melting into the waxy morning sky, the glowing clouds pregnant with life as the camera slowly pans down to a lonely farmhouse underlined by a rutted dirt road. Inside, a family is praying before breakfast, the monotonous clock counting away the seconds, while Reygadas cuts to each face in turn: the shy and fidgeting children, the dutiful teenagers and his solemn wife. This familial panorama is cold with unspoken dread, like a tumorous disease diagnosed but afraid to be spoken aloud for fear of giving birth to it’s malignant reality. Johan has confessed his unfaithfulness to his wife Esther but remains a purposeful slave to his transgression, often leaving her to fill Marianne with his lust, a dichotomy of animal instinct versus the cognitive reasoning of a deferential husband.
In one absorbing scene, he and Ester bathe the children in a small pool, the scene something like an ancient baptismal service, and she soon washes the legs of her teenage daughter with care and dignity. Later, after Esther’s death, we see the grandmother and same daughter cleaning her corpse in the exact same manner, but ripe with a maddening sadness and despair. The ghost of Tarkovsky and the spirit of Dreyer haunt this grimly beautiful inner world while Malick’s shadow is cast upon the natural contours of human vistas and bleeding skies.
The narrative climax is an unburdening of guilt, as Marianne hovers over Esther’s body, a single teardrop bringing the illusion of life and vitality back to the dead, a longing to unlock those secret vaults where selfishness lurks and sometimes overpowers our instincts. Last goodbyes are spoken softly to the gentle sunset as a single moth flutters through the open window like a soul searching for the heavenly incandescence, to burn out until the cycle begins anew.
Final Grade: (A)