The body of work put forth by Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas has been nothing short of polarizing. At 42, and now with four features under his belt, Reygadas has been earmarked as one of the most ambitious and daring filmmakers working in modern cinema and in the arthouse. With his latest, Post Tenebras Lux (Latin for After Darkness, Light), his status grows; this very personal and seemingly scattered autobiographical account should further mystify the Reygadas faithful and detractors alike. As a symbol of creative ambition, few come close to matching Reygadas, an artist unaware of boundaries and safe zones within the medium. His cinema, and especially Post Tenebras Lux, is miraculous, almost overwhelmingly flowing with flaws and passion. For better or worse, his natural instincts depict a constant beauty amid tragedy and turmoil.
Reygadas sure knows how to open a film, even going back to the mesmerizing painterly-like bookends of Silent Light. Here, we track a young girl wandering around a wet and muddy field in the Mexican countryside at dusk. She’s surrounded by cows, dogs, and the foreboding aura of what lingers on the horizon. The dark tinge of the night sky slowly fades in and out, revealing the title of the film; her tiny face and innocent gaze are now shrouded in darkness. The young girl (Rut), along with her brother (Eleazar) in the film, turns out to be the real life children of Reygadas, and the two young siblings parented by Juan and Natalia, the family at the center of the film.
While it does take a while to make any sense of the structure of this thing, there is the hint of a narrative at the center of this morally divisive and primal universe; a narrative always shifting its rotation with its wobbling crescendo of baffling bewilderment and awe. Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) and wife Natalia’s (Nathalia Acevedo) ostensibly well-off urban life and marriage now seems under construction; though, the crisis brewing underneath their roof seems to leisurely exist in another clashing world as well. The entrancing opening is followed by a bewildering second scene: the family’s home is intruded upon by a glowing red devil as he gracefully stalks the corridors and peeks in on the family while carrying a toolbox; this muted segment kicks off the film’s penchant for evocative and portentous imagery.
The violent and sexual underbelly of man is felt not only by Juan, who distastefully bludgeons one of the family dogs early on, but also by Seven (Willebaldo Torres), an estranged father who has done renovations on Juan’s home. It is perhaps here where Post Tenebras Lux finds its most concrete footing, as the narrative tension found within Juan and Seven’s contrasting class and social standing begins to feverishly build. Reygadas has tackled these issues before, albeit much more explicitly in his 2005 film Battle in Heaven, a film built on the currency of sexual acts and class warfare in Mexico. Here, the actions are conveyed in a more refined manner, but in a way that increasingly hits home.
While some may scoff or find themselves detached or unaffected by what Reygadas is doing here – mainly in the film’s nonlinear and elliptical presentation, patience eventually does pay off. Among the most troubling is a detour to a sex spa – a scene hampered by its spiritual banality (real, flashback, or dream is anyone’s guess). There are also the interspersed Rugby match scenes which don’t seem to include any of the primary characters at any point in their lives, resulting in a jarring and loose human condition commentary that is oddly felt, if not wholly palatable. That the film is shot with a 1.37: 1 aspect ratio with the edges of the frame blurred only adds to its ominous fabric. Many have stated Reygadas is evoking or riffing off the iconography or gaze of Tarkovsky or Malick (a pair of apt comparisons) – but what’s most interesting and maybe most essential is the collective searching and reevaluating of the sacred image.
Somehow, as Post Tenebras Lux continues on with its tricky narrative structure, Reygadas’ film finally manages to grasp at something finite and lucid. Images both foreign and beautiful begin to take some ghastly formation: a close-up of a couple’s hands intertwined that reveal inner peace, the singing of a Neil Young song, an over-the-top act of suicide, and a final scene — most notably the film’s final line, both abrupt and fitting, that rocked me to my core. Reygadas may be commenting that the devil’s work has been done (the breaching of the family unit?), or that the eternal “light” shines on way past the darkness.
— Ty Landis