Post Tenebras Lux, the fourth film by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas demands a relaxed, open mind well aware of the boundaries of cinema and in search of something fresh. The cinephile with an adventurous taste looking for something new in the forms of narrative structure and framing will leave a film like this invigorated. Those looking for something traditional will only feel frustrated, however. But resist and miss a vital message about the class divisions that seem to perpetuate themselves via the mind-numbing escapism most filmmakers are comfortable to exploit for profit and cheap thrills.
Post Tenebras Lux (Latin for “After the darkness, light,” a term lifted out of the Book of Job) is a slippery affair that oozes a vibrant, vital energy looking to obliterate the confines of cinematic narrative for high impact of a social message that seems to trouble the filmmaker to the core of his being. He puts his own lifestyle at the center of culpability by placing his own progeny in the film as the main characters’ children. As you watch the main character Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) try to mingle with the working class while indulging in bourgeois life, which includes a sex adventure to France with his quietly suffering wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), one has to wonder how much of this is autobiographical, at least on the level of conscience. The abstract manner of this film speaks to the filmmaker’s own frustration with the hypocritical idea of it, for ultimately, how can an art film truly speak to the concerns of the other, much less the subaltern.
Illustrating the futile divisions in class systems, Reygadas, who also wrote the screenplay, juxtaposes vignettes of a small town in the lush forest landscape of Central Mexico, bookended by a children’s rugby match in the U.K. Consider the Jungian principal of synchronicity, and the narrative conceit should feel easier to accept, as both settings will illuminate the other in an incongruent but impactful manner. For the most part, the film follows an upper-class family that remains as humanly flawed as the rest of town’s denizens in the lower classes, yet social constructs result in an impenetrable division, despite Juan’s efforts to socialize and mix with those under his employ or simply living in the same area. It all comes to a head in a violent encounter as banal and distant as Reygadas dares to conceive.
The film opens with an evocative if startling exterior scene at dusk. A little girl Eleazar (Eleazar Reygadas) stomps through a muddy meadow as a pack of dogs run back and forth around her, harassing a herd of cows, some of which attempt to copulate. The child, who must be about 3 years of age, is monosyllabic, uttering words like “dog” and “cow” and what will soon be revealed as the names of her immediate family. She sloshes around, fascinated by the mushy ground, as the dogs zip around her and nip at the agitated cows. The sky looms dark with gray clouds pregnant with rain and rumbling electricity. The opening scene carries on long enough, in what seems a single take, to turn from dusk to pitch black and only the sound of animals and the child’s startlingly playful voice resonate from a darkness broken up by flashes of lightning.
Scene 2: Enter the devil. The presence of evil is revealed in the family’s home. The glowing red thing, with no features but its silhouette and testicles hanging and swaying like a pendulum, creeps through the family’s fancy home, carrying a toolbox and bathing the walls in a red glow. The thing takes its time to establish itself. It feels as long as the opening scene, inviting the viewer to wonder. When the little boy of the house, Rut (Rut Reygadas), awakes, he stares at the figure with a sort of curiosity that implies he might be dreaming it but also an awareness that such visions can wholly come to children as rather real (read: traumatic). The scene may feel long, but it allows for it to creep under the skin, so it might echo and illuminate the following scenes that range from violence to animals, subjugation of men and the environment and degradation of love. This is not any easy film to experience, and there are many lengthy, quiet scenes similar in length that range from startling to mundane. But there are also chatty scenes that illustrate Reygadas’ concern also has a sense of humor.
Despite many grand shots outdoors, Reygadas subverts the landscape with the use of a beveled lens that refracts the edges of the image leading to a doubling or sometimes quadrupling of the frame’s edge, creating an invisible if suffocating border around the people he has focused his camera on. This is not some indulgent, random use of experimental lensing. There is a symbolic relevance to the flourish. Post Tenebras Lux is a darkly poetic wake-up call about people who have lost their humanity and could very well continue to lose it should they allow themselves to succumb to complacent entitlement. It’s as harsh an experience as the recent class-concerned Paradise: Love, another exclusive screening revealing the brave programming that continues at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (My review: Film Review: ‘Paradise: Love’ peels away layers perpetuated by Disney gloss of post-colonial times). However, whereas Paradise: Love found potency in its raw delivery of frank exchanges between two different worlds of people, Post Tenebras Lux takes a more abstract approach. The narrative frequently jumps around with seemingly disconnected scenes that demand an open mind by the audience prepared for an interpretive experience. To understand, however, might mean you will have to look at something that you might not like to see, be they scenes that shock on-screen or conversations that demand inference from a social standpoint of the same hypocrisy Reygadas seems to struggle with. It does not have to feel negative, and he offers hope at the end.
Post Tenebras Lux won Reygadas the best director award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It is a brilliantly structured work that encapsulates earthy characters, startling scenes of suspense and inventive cinematic techniques not seen in his prior work. It stands as one of this year’s truly transcendent films. The director seems very aware of breaking down and recreating the rules of cinema for such an experience to hit the audience. With Post Tenebras Lux, Reygadas shows a daring vision to experiment that echoes beyond panache and into consciousness that may aggravate some but never undermines its grander, insightful message that ultimately overshadows any idea of pretentiousness.
Post Tenebras Lux runs 115 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (this is in no way for kids, however). It opened in South Florida at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, during which an early version of this review first ran. Post Tenebras Lux begins a limited engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, May 31. I have been asked by the Cinematheque to introduce the film on opening night, Friday, and the following Saturday night, so be there for either of those screenings and say hi and learn a little more about this movie.