POST TENEBRAS LUX A
Mexico France Germany (120 mi) d: Carlos Reygadas
Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity.
—War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, 1869, quoted at a dinner party by Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro)
Carlos Reygadas makes challenging art films that play in film festivals, where you can count on extreme visualization and an austerity of form, where in this film he nearly disregards narrative altogether, feeling very much like a Godless Bruno Dumont film, as he examines many of the same themes evoked from the title, “After the darkness, light.” Impressively shot by Alexis Zabé, for the first time not on ‘Scope, strangely using a boxed 1:37 aspect ratio with refracted images on each side of the screen which has a dizzying way of expressing shadow images that suggest an everpresent duality of meaning. Told out of sequence, as if that hardly matters, suggesting it’s the overall whole that matters, not each individually selected piece, the film does suggest a good and evil scenario, also God, the Devil, and redemption, class differences, also crime and punishment, where once again nature is viewed at its most thunderous best, literally overpowering the people that populate this film. While there are likely moral and spiritual messages, they tend to get lost in the random order in which this film is told, where perhaps they are the hardest for each individual to discover in their own lives as well. While this may be the most challenging film of the year, many are instead taking the easy route, suggesting it is so incomprehensible that the odor of pretentiousness defines this picture. One must understand that similar charges were weighed against Andrei Tarkovsky’s THE MIRROR (1975), for instance, yet many now think this may be one of Tarkovsky’s most hauntingly beautiful films. There is a dramatic, Dumont-like scene near the end that takes place in an open field, where the aftermath of rainfall can only be attributed to Tarkovsky, offering a baptismal-like cleansing that evokes John the Baptist, as if this mythical undertaking might wipe away the sins of the world.
The experience of viewing a film like this is certainly unlike that of seeing other movies, where in a similar manner of say Yasujirô Ozu, the director forces the viewer to alter their perception of what they’re seeing onscreen simply by the way he chooses to express it, where in Ozu’s case he uses a fixed point of reference where he’s simply observing life as it is, while with Tarkovsky or Dreyer, cinema is a means that transcends human limitations, like music, literature, or great art. Even before the viewer sets foot inside the theater, they know a Reygadas film will be visually spectacular, where nature manifests itself in a glorious, Edenesque simplicity, while also exploring the pathetic interior failings of mankind, pitting spiritual themes against the existential crises of men. Described as a semi-autobiographical film where reason barely intrudes, Reygadas has suggested this film is “like an expressionist painting where you try to express what you're feeling through the painting rather than depict what something looks like,” supposedly shot in Mexico, Spain, Belgium, and Britain, all places where Reygadas has lived, which might help explain the final shot of the film, which otherwise seems quite random, though the director played rugby for the Mexican national team. With this in mind, it may be useful to view this as one might an experimental film, perhaps even a video installation, where you’re not so much interested in what’s going on at any given moment as the effect it’s having internally as you experience it. All Reygadas films have premiered at Cannes, where his first film JAPÓN (2002) won the Caméra D’Or award for the best first feature, SILENT LIGHT (2007) won the Jury Prize (3rd place), while for POST TENEBRAS LUX, Reygadas was awarded the Best Director at Cannes in 2012.
The opening of this film is as powerful as anything seen this year, where a small girl (the director’s daughter Rut) is wandering around a waterlogged open soccer field pointing out various animals like dogs, cows, and horses, while thunder and lightning flash across the sky, as man and nature commingle, but the most prominent effect is the incessant sound of dogs barking. A supernatural element follows, something along the lines of what we might come to expect in a Weerasethakul film, before a realist, more recognizable family scene reveals Rut is the younger sister to Eleazar (the director’s son), whose affluent parents are Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), living in what resembles an architecturally designed house in what is otherwise a poor rural area of Mexico. The parent’s relationship revolves around old literary language, continually calling one another love, or my love, even though Juan has a vile temper, seen viciously beating one of his prized dogs (offscreen). Sometime later, the parents are at a wealthy dinner party, where Juan proudly quotes Tolstoy, generating mocking sneers behind his back, finding him pretentiously arrogant and snobbish. In stark contrast, the couple later enjoys themselves visiting a hip Paris sauna when trading partners was in vogue, where Natalia is a big hit literally offering herself to the somewhat lecherous clientele. Each of these scenes is an example of the disharmony in man, a fall from grace, where there are eventual consequences, even when expressed as a random act. In some mysterious way, man is ultimately punished, perhaps by God, perhaps by the Devil, but this film presents apocalyptical acts of damnation, followed by a Biblical cleansing. Whatever one makes of this film, there is little to suggest it is an act of extreme provocation, or an empty exercise of self indulgence, as claimed by some, as there were a scattering of boos at Cannes as well, instead one might suggest it’s a profoundly influential modernist and narrative free work that simply operates in a different cinematic vernacular, existing in a dreamlike plateau where humans often play a secondary role.