Mesmerizing, mysterious, willfully perverse, the Mexican movie Post Tenebras Lux (2012) opens with two scenes, one realistic, the other fantastical. In the first a toddler roams across a muddy country field at dusk as thunder booms and dogs chase cows, horses and donkeys.
It’s a cacophonous, stunning sequence. The edges of the images are softly blurred, the light is magical — although it isn’t remotely clear what that girl and those animals have to do with the following scene of a red, radiant devil with horns, hooves, swishing tail and a literal toolbox entering a house at night, like a handyman from Hades on an emergency call. It’s no wonder that a young boy in the house who sees this bizarre apparition stops cold to gawk.
The magnificent opening scene in Post Tenebras Lux
Viewers will do the same if the filmmaker Carlos Reygadas, whose earlier work includes Japón and Silent Light, has his way. The trick is whether viewers will also stay put. Here’s hoping that they do because while Mr. Reygadas doesn’t always make it easy to watch his work (occasionally the reverse), the Carlos Reygadas Experience is always a worthwhile trip. And head-tripping is very much part of Mr. Reygadas’s cinema, whether or not he’s tethered his sometimes lovely, sometimes appalling visions to a strong narrative. Certainly there is a story of a sort in Post Tenebras Lux — in crude genre terms, it’s a male psychodrama cum family-man meltdown — but it’s a narrative that emerges from scenes that at times appear so disconnected they might be from different movies.
The film’s title is Latin for “after darkness, light,” which, after the Reformation, became a motto of Geneva. Post Tenebras Lux isn’t an overtly religious film, but it is — as its opposing scenes of the luminous child and that red-hot devil suggest — a deeply personal, intermittently hermetic exploration of innocence and sin, good and evil. The vessel for much of this metaphysical investigation is an architect, Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro), who with his wife, Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo); their somewhat older son, Eleazar; and the toddler, Rut, lives in rural splendor in an isolated house. It looks like a little bit of paradise, though one that needs an armed guard.
Class and race figure into much of Mr. Reygadas’s work, often as a source of palpable, violent tension that simmers and simmers until it erupts without explanation or, at times, evident reason. Here, violence explodes early in two thematically linked scenes, one of Juan furiously beating a dog for an unspecified offense (mercifully, this appears staged and takes place mostly off screen) and the other of a man, Seven (Willebaldo Torres), hacking at a resplendent forest evergreen. Seven, who lives in a concrete-block house and has an estranged wife and two children, has done renovation work on Juan’s house. Although the two men are separated by class and social standing, Mr. Reygadas also suggests they’re connected by deeper, primal instincts.
That those instincts may have been corrupted is telegraphed when Juan and Natalia pop up in a kind of sex spa with other men and women, some wearing towels and others wearing nothing at all, who roam through, lounge in and copulate in a series of waggishly named rooms. Initially, Juan and Natalia play voyeurs who, with others, impassively watch a gaggle of mostly off-screen participants engage in loudly, comically orchestrated group sex. “Shall we go?” Juan asks Natalia, as casually as a bored theatergoer. They do, and, after stopping by the Hegel Room (no dialectics, just sluggish nudists), they enter the Duchamp Room, first passing French-speaking swingers smoking cigarettes. Inside the room, as Juan watches, Natalia finds pleasure and, in a Pietà pose, maybe the sacred.
Mr. Reygadas doesn’t indicate if these rooms are real or fantasies, even if he has made it clear that Juan functions as a kind of authorial place holder and possibly a close filmmaker surrogate. This isn’t apparent from anything in the actual film, but in interviews he has explained that he shot part of Post Tenebras Lux in and around his house, an airy multistory modern affair set in a lush, mountainous region in south-central Mexico. Mr. Reygadas’s children, Rut and Eleazar, also play Juan’s children. (In scenes in which the children appear older, the roles are played by others.) Like Mr. Reygadas, Juan comes from money and, unlike most of the area’s inhabitants, looks to be of white European ancestry rather than of Indian descent.
Life and death, nature and culture, sex and money, man and beast, God and the Devil — Post Tenebras Lux embraces the world even if it doesn’t open itself up to ready interpretation. That’s partly because Mr. Reygadas wants his viewers to work it out themselves and partly because he throws up roadblocks, including a distorting camera lens, abruptly inserted images of British boys playing rugby (Mr. Reygadas attended school in Britain) and a timeline that’s as piecemeal as memory. The film doesn’t unfold linearly, but instead jumps from one moment to the next, the different periods indicated primarily by Juan’s changing hairstyles and the children’s ages. Everything in the film may be in the past or may just be in the eternal, magnificent, maddening present that is Mr. Reygadas’s consciousness.
Review courtesy of The New York Times