Maverick helmer Carlos Reygadas compares “Post tenebras lux” to an expressionist painting, though Dadaist is more accurate. Auds will go for “perplexing,” likely to be the kindest word used when describing this challenging non-story about a family living in the grandeur of Mexico’s wilds. The director surely doesn’t expect auds to attempt a logical piecing together of the shifting elements in this ultra-personal mood piece, which makes Djuna Barnes feel like Dan Brown. Themes from Reygadas’ previous pics crop up, and visuals expectedly astonish, yet despite moderate Cannes sales to boutique distribs, “Post” will largely remain in tenebrae.
The title, signifying “light after darkness,” derives from the Latin translation of the Book of Job, an appropriate source given that a considerable amount of the prophet’s proverbial patience is required. Not that the pic doesn’t have its frequent rewards: Ever since “Silent Light,” Reygadas’ talent for capturing the many-toned nuances of landscape has been second to none. The opener is a perfect example, as his own daughter, toddler Rut Reygadas, runs around a vast muddy field at stormy twilight.
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Several elements make the sequence extraordinary, especially the way the cacophonous dogs, cows and horses around the cute moppet take on a feral quality that vividly conveys the disturbing jumble of animalism and innocence lying at the heart of nature and the human condition. Considering the pic is described as a semi-autobiographical work, it’s not hard to imagine the scene reflecting Reygadas’ paternal concerns as he watches his vulnerable daughter progress through primal childhood. Some may feel that throwing lightning and thunder in as well is a bit much, but there’s no denying the beauty here.
To jump from this to the inside of a house where an animated devil, composed solely of red light, carries a toolbox while investigating rooms, offers some idea of the film’s countless head-scratching moments. Knowing Reygadas’ previous work, it’s safe to imagine the devil’s calm stroll at least partly represents the capacity for devilish acts in everyone, yet while “Post tenebras lux” may become fodder for directionless grad students looking for thesis topics, such pointless analysis won’t make this opaque vision any clearer.
Since there’s no cohesive narrative, a character introduction has to suffice. Rut and Eleazar Reygadas play the young kids of Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), a well-off couple living in a remote area of natural splendor. Recovering alcoholic Seven (Willebaldo Torres) is their handyman of questionable loyalty; he could be a representation of Reygadas’ unconscious fear of a male outsider in the family circle, though interpretations are open.
Possibly before the kids’ birth, Juan and Natalia go to a French-speaking sex club where Natalia is shared around in a scene of mass nudity unsurprising to anyone familiar with “Battle in Heaven.” There’s also a flash-forward to a family gathering in which young teens Eleazar and Rut are petted by their extravagantly wealthy relatives, a sequence slightly more understandable, in context, than two scenes of English schoolboys playing rugby. During pre-production, the helmer announced he’d shoot in Mexico, England, Spain and Belgium — all countries he has lived in — but perhaps financial considerations gratifyingly restricted him to just the first two.
Elsewhere, themes common to Reygadas’ other films also pop up. Juan’s mistreatment of one of his many dogs brings to mind the cries of animal cruelty that plagued his freshman work, “Japon.” The divide between people of European stock and their indigenous staff was treated more directly in “Battle in Heaven” and his entry in the omnibus film “Revolution.” No doubt other parallels exist, but only Reygadas’ own psychiatrist, should he be poetically inclined, could complete the analysis.
A more rewarding investigation lies in the director’s visual sense of the sublime, and the Romantic Era’s understanding of the word as connoting nature’s power to overwhelm, even terrify. He made this stunningly clear with “Silent Light,” and he does so again in “Post tenebras lux.” Though shot and screened in Academy ratio, the landscapes here have a majesty that evoke mixed sensations of troubled awe, reinforced by a closeup of Frederic Edwin Church’s painting “Floating Iceberg,” a suitable choice given Church’s status as champion of the sublime in art.
Equally striking here, though more mysterious, is Reygadas’ decision to lens all outdoor scenes with extra-sharp focus in the center of the frame, surrounded by an out-of-focus circle around the edges. The device lends a dreamlike quality to the visuals, especially when the ultra-crisp nucleus gives an almost diorama-like sense of dimensionality. Why he seems to occasionally expand the focal point, and why interiors are treated differently, is more difficult to rationalize. Sound mixing is exceptional.