Carlos Reygadas is not a particularly approachable filmmaker. His 2007 film, Silent Light, concerns an insular Mexican Mennonite group whose adherents perpetrate and cover up mass rapes. What makes the film such a singular event is the way in which Reygadas depicts his subjects: extraordinarily patiently, dryly, as the scenes often feature little to no dialogue or movement. The minimalist technique is meant to mimic the lifestyle of the community onscreen, lulling the audience into a state of engagement that would otherwise feel impossible, given what’s actually happening.
Rare is the film that strives for rhapsodic innovation and achieves it without fail, but Mexican auteur Reygadas strives for such distinction, and mostly achieves it, in his newest effort Post Tenebras Lux (After Darkness Light). It’s the sort of film that defies traditional meaning by design, which is part of what makes it great, and also what makes it slightly infuriating. Post is all over the map stylistically, as scenes often switch between beautiful naturalism, blunt violence, and supernatural animation. This makes his work divisive, but also worth the effort if you’re up for something that’s a bit non-traditional.
The opening scenes pack a real wallop. The nearly ten minute first scene is glorious, recalling Malick in all his resplendent naturalism. A young girl aged five or younger shuffles through an empty field at dusk. Wild animals surround her as she gleefully searches for her brother and parents. An impending storm threatens danger yet there’s no sense of urgency to her movement; only wanderlust.
Cows, goats, and herding dogs run around here. She’s vulnerable, as if she could be prey, yet she’s unperturbed. Brilliant lightning flashes in a coral sky, forecasting harm. Reygadas creates an ostensibly paradoxical universe in which serenity and tension coexist, as they do in nature. Nature is king, and mortals exist only at the whim and good fortune of the greater universe.
Moral symbolism is apparent immediately when things turn grim inside the home. An ominous steady shot of the front door at night rests with the viewer until an animated devil/ satyr/ spirit slowly enters. He approaches the camera unperturbed, lumbering down the hallway and through the bedrooms, eventually going in to haunt the sleeping parents. Whatever hope and comfort there was amidst the chaos of the natural landscape has been dramatically erased by the definitively creepy interior of man’s constructed identity.
It’s necessary to describe these scenes at some length because they provide the framework for Reygadas’s formal invention, one that ultimately seeks to provide quasi-spiritual instruction. From this point Post Tenebras Lux functions as a series of slightly over-determined kaleidoscopic vignettes contextualizing the story of the family mostly unseen in the introduction.
Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) is the patriarch, and it’s through his actions that the story primarily unfolds. A rich, “white” Mexican man living on a sprawling estate, Juan is immediately understood as an anomaly within his natural environment. He lives in and around manual laborers, some of whom work for him as help, many of whom he sees in town living in destitution. He’s brooding, brusque, and violent towards animals, but then he can also be endearing and sweet, mostly to his children, Rut and Eleazar, occasionally to his wife, Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo).
Indeed, Post Tenebras Lux is full of paradoxes, the foremost of which is Juan’s struggle with perceived masculine identities and socio-economic structures. Proceeding omnisciently, the scenes function mostly as glimpses into the life of a model family living in an unstable world. Reygadas characterizes his human vehicles at various points throughout their life, somewhat non-linearly, but the end result is the same; they’re infinitesimal creatures in an expansive scheme. Gorgeous visuals interchange: bucolic countryside vistas and nature’s glory rest alongside the dredge of man’s despair, desire and excess.
Midway through there’s a feeling that Reygadas doesn’t quite trust his audience and so keeps reminding them of the points that have already been made. By the end, though, transcendence happens almost out of nowhere, as the supernatural and the naturalistic elements of his filmmaking converge into something truly special. The methods he uses to achieve this effect are divisive, Comparisons to Malick’s Tree of Life are apt, but with Post Tenebras Lux, Reygadas continues his own unique quest for a new cinematic language. He’s not always successful, but when he is you’ll experience moments of true cinematic beauty. It’s well worth the ride.
Post Tenebras Lux is perfect to watch in a dimly lit living room on a blustery Saturday night. Recently released on Blu-ray by Strand, a handful of deleted scenes continue Reygadas’s aesthetic attempts, notably a technique wherein the edges of the frame are blurred and the contents within are occasionally doubled. This is the most common technique he employs in an effort to produce a surrealist product, and it works.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.