‘Post Tenebras Lux’ confuses and delights from one scene to the next
Carlos Reygadas is not the sort of filmmaker who earns consensus among critics and film aficionados. A few years ago he came out with Silent Light, which was an exquisitely shot, extremely intimate story about a secluded community deep within the Mexican countryside which this movie fan enjoyed a great deal. Not everyone did however, with some deriding it for being slow, empty and pretentious. It would seem the director is up to some of his old tricks in 2012 with Post Tenebras Lux, his new film which earned him a Mise en Scène award at the most recent Cannes Film Festival. While this may be reason to celebrate Reygadas’ film finally arriving at the FNC, it feels safe to say that the new film will easily rustle a few feathers as well.
Reygadas returns yet again to Mexico in Post Tenebras Lux, and once more audiences are transported to the countryside, although this time it is to observe the trials and tribulations of a family that originally comes from the city. Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) chops trees for lumber, earning a handsome living in the process as can be attested by the impressive home he, his wife Natalia (Nathalie Acevedo) and their two children live in. All is not well however, as Juan displays signs of frightening aggression at times, with one early and particularly discomforting scene having him beat one of his dogs mercilessly. His sex life with Natalia has also hit something of a snag, forcing them to resort to some strange methods in order to fulfill their needs, such as visiting mixed saunas where the patrons…do things. It has come to the point where he attends a small, community based self help group where former alcoholics and the like speak their minds freely. Rugby matches, Christmas gatherings and jealous neighbours are but some of the other episodes viewers are asked to peak into in order to better understand the ebb and flow of the curious, at times contradictory lives of these characters, plus unexpected appearances by some very odd events and people.
Of all the many ideas that pop into one’s head when trying to articulate the ups and downs about Post Tenebras Lux and how viewers should approach it, if at all, the one that feels the most pressing is that anybody whose will to stand remarkably slow paced films with seemingly confounding narratives for which the pieces are thrown out and about for the viewer to make out what they can should stay as far away as possible from this movie. To put it succinctly, Reygadas has no intention of making it easy for audiences, even less so than with Silent Lights, a film whose level of difficulty had more to do with its pacing, which was indeed slow. Its narrative, what little narrative existed at least, was simple enough to follow and was reasonably accessible, all things considered. The director’s latest deliberately opts for a different approach, one that might very well leave many heads scratching. The main issue of contention some might have with the film is that the narrative is incredibly unstructured. The father has violent tendencies, the couple’s love life is navigating rocky waters, and a cartoon looking, red-silhouette character which may represent the devil, or a spirit of some sorts, walks around with a tool box. What does that latter plot point have to do with anything? The reader’s guess is as good as anybody’s. That is simply how Reygadas enjoys approaching his material. Even in Silent Light, there were hints of the fantastical at play, influencing the story. Post Tenebras Lux is no different in that sense, only that the director’s penchant for satisfying his art house inclinations is even more prevalent. Fans of the director’s work might feel very much at home with his latest effort, others less so, unless willing to accept the film on its own terms, incredible idiosyncrasies and all.
That speaks to the construction of the film’s visual style as well, not merely the story. In one of the most intriguing decisions a director has made in recent memory, all outdoor sequences which transpire in the Mexican countryside, the picture, the framing of which is a very old school 1.37:1 by the way, is characterized by an unhealthy looking distortion on both the left and right extremities. In fact, one could almost say it is akin to looking at the world through a crystal glass. It is a odd aesthetic choice in a decidedly odd little film, although the fact that every time the distortion is put into effect is when scenes are set outside, where the potential to capture the brilliance of the Mexican wilderness is nullified, that is probably what makes the decision all the stranger. In a film where character motivations are constantly questioned, when scenes that initially look like they will evolve in the simplest of fashions end up throwing curve balls, perhaps it is fitting that instead of allowing viewers to take in what must be some sumptuous scenery, Reygadas deliberately chooses to limit the field of vision, indirectly ‘enhancing’ the visuals by lending the film a dream-like quality.
Despite however uneasy it may be to connect with the story and its characters, the film somehow succeeds in landing some emotional punches in the final stages when Juan, after having received a critical injury, comes to terms with the fact that he may not live through the episode. In fairness, actor Adolfo Jiménez Castro’s performance in the scene should be highlighted for its strength and complexity. He is suddenly a man realizing that his time may be up, and with that come out conflicted emotions. The moment arrives late, very late in the film, but at least it is there to help cap off Juan’s story nicely.
The game plan for a movie watcher wondering whether or not they should take a chance on Post Tenebras Lux is fairly simple. If what the director has done in the past suites their fancy, then by all means take a chance (and even then, the film might come off as particularly bizarre). Reygadas is one of those directors that finds pleasure in taking his time in developing mood, tone, characters. Scenes evolve slowly and as such the viewer is sucked into the director’s playground where reality the surreal make acquaintances. Strange bedfellows indeed, but the results can be surprising.