Post Tenebras Lux
Directed by: Carlos Reygadas
Written by: Carlos Reygadas
Starring: Adolfo Jiménez Castro, Nathalia Acevedo, Willebaldo Torres and Eleazar Reygadas
Carlos Reygadas has been building towards this film his entire career. His first two features, Japón and Battle in Heaven, were made by a young talent with a strong proclivity towards sex and violence and an almost spiritual worldview—films that remain impressive, but also feel like the work of a director still settling in. His next outing, Silent Light, took that spirituality even further and left behind the more provocative elements, crafting a film that was a bracing technical and emotional achievement. Post Tenebras Lux (which translates to “Light After Darkness”), far and away his best film, brings the luridness of the earlier work to co-mingle with the more religious and philosophical nature of Silent Light. It is also the director’s most personal film to date, offering a much more opaque and baffling vision than any of his previous work.
The almost unanimously cold reception says much more about the critics reviewing the film than it does about the director who helmed this vision. If we’re dealing with something that feels out of reach, intellectually or otherwise, it seems almost customary in the film world to immediately dismiss whatever is on the screen (or, in Post Tenebras Lux’s case, pan it as a “massive failure”). I offer a different assessment: this is a radical exercise, but also one that stands as easily the most inviting film Reygadas has made. It is a work of insurmountable beauty and mystery, and one that beckons the viewer inside its impossible world.
Post Tenebras Lux opens with two extraordinary sequences that could very well be the best Reygadas has ever filmed. The first shows a very young girl running through a field at dusk and naming off the roaming animals. The girl, Rut, is both actual daughter of the director and the fictional daughter of the central family here. This announces the film’s almost home movie intimacy right from the start (his son is also featured.
As she is wandering, the sky starts to darken, rain clouds gather overhead, and an air of menace seems to take over the screen. The title flashes, one word at time, over the pitch-black rain clouds and crashing thunder. On a purely technical level, it is astonishing—reminiscent and on par with the sunrise/sunset scenes from Silent Light. After this remarkable scene, another one immediately follows: an animated Devil, seemingly arriving home from work, is seen creeping through a house at night carrying a tool box, and silently peeking into a child’s room. Though these scenes do not squarely fit in with the main narrative, they still have a whole lot to do with the thematic ideas on display.
There are a few other scenes that also remain detached from the story (most notably, the English rugby match and the futuristic French orgy), but they also give the film its weight. It is deeply concerned with patriarchal domination, with family as a unit, with upper/lower class divisions as well as guilt and uncontrollable rage.
Some have labeled this as a mid-life crisis film, and I don’t think that is very far off. It is autobiographical in the most unsettling sense. The “main” story is about a family that lives in the Mexican countryside. The father is presented as a sex-starved and violent presence, brutally beating one of the family dogs to death in an early scene.
One of the things I found difficult to reconcile with in the director’s early work, notably Japón, was the animal violence. Although the scene in Post Tenebras Lux is still brutal and rightfully off-putting, it is shown off-screen. He later admits that he cannot control his violent impulses, and his wife always seems to be tip-toeing around him, estranged and uncomfortable, as if something terrible is just waiting to be unleashed.
Through all of this, there is story concerning a worker for the family that is weaved into the movie’s tapestry. It is through this character’s connection to the family that Reygadas shows a strong class divide, as well as a division on a smaller scale in both of the families. The film seems to have a large slant towards collectivism (this becomes especially clear in the cryptic last line of the film) and working together for the greater good. Unveiling much more of the plot would be doing the movie a great disservice. The best scenes come through with such a surreal vigor that the element of surprise is best left retained.
Throughout Post Tenebras Lux, Reygadas incorporates a strange fish-eye effect—apparently, a screw-up while shooting that the director and his DP Alexis Zabe chose not to correct—that is less disorienting than it is beautiful. It gives the outdoor scenes a ghostly radiance that feels at home with the dreamy atmosphere conjured up. Aesthetic decisions like this one show a filmmaker, often ridiculed for imitating one of the greats, taking bracing risks. This is a film that feels very much like something new and exciting, and if some of the ideas seem muddy or out of reach to some, it also feels like a deliberate decision and not a misstep. The negative critical opinion has lent it no favors, and it continues to be disregarded as some sort of misguided venture that is too ambitious for its own good. This further supports the unfortunate notion that cinema is meant to be plot-driven, to be easily digestible and glued to the same tired format. Post Tenebras Lux is art-house cinema at its most inspired—miss it, and you’re missing one the year’s great films.