Review: 'Post Tenebras Lux'

“The film is what it is.” - Carlos Reygadas

The films of Carlos Reygadas evince one truth above all others: our desires are always rendered absurd by their circumstances. His previous film, the serenely powerful “Silent Light,” ends with a miracle that violates logic in order to honor faith, and while we can’t understand how it rewards the longings of the film’s hero, in doing so we more perfectly come to understand the desire, itself.

Post Tenebras Lux" ... well, it’s the kind of movie whose official synopsis begins with the word “ostensibly.” Ostensibly the story of a brusque and brutish family man named Juan (first-time actor Adolfo Jiménez Castro) who relocates his beautiful young wife and their two small children to a mini-mansion in the Mexican countryside, “Post Tenebras Lux” – a Calvinistic expression of salvation that translates from the latin as “after darkness, light” – is ultimately a rather simple portrait of self-reflection, a fevered journey into the dark heart of a male’s moral universe.

Juan possesses a tremendous violence. We know this even before he puts it on display (repeatedly head-slamming a family dog onto the porch), as he poses and moves his strapping husk with force rather than meaning, his body language always shouting. Juan wants to be a decent man – he attends an amusingly makeshift 12-step meeting and gives the impression that he uprooted his family from the city in order to distance himself from all manner of temptation – but he struggles with his base nature, and how to reconcile the purity of his youth with the vileness of his present.

Juan’s angst is not explicitly motivated or framed by the tenets of any particular religion, it’s at once both more primitive and precise than that, an ancient search for absolution that’s conjoined to neuroses over unearned privilege and shaped by the details of an appreciably modern world (a reference to Buzz Lightyear is almost as shocking here as it would be in one of the Tarkovsky or Dryer films that have obviously informed its making).

The plot, such as it is, is never especially difficult to follow, especially for those viewers willing to embrace the surrealistic digressions that obfuscate the timeline. Reygadas’ storytelling is somewhat non-linear, but seldom is it needlessly so – like David Lynch, he understands that looking directly at something isn’t always (or ever) the best way of seeing it, and to that end “Post Tenebras Lux” unfolds like a testosterone-fueled riff on “Mulholland Drive,” complete with demonic asides and a persistently erotic undercurrent.

The film’s stunning opening sequence, which follows Juan’s daughter as she runs around the wilderness in the moments before a thundering tempest, is followed by the first of two scenes in which a nude computer-generated demon enters their home, a toolbox in his hand and his clumsily rendered genitals flapping between his thighs. Juan’s dream? Maybe. If it made perfect sense, he wouldn’t have to dream it.

Reygadas partially owes his success an emerging auteur to the fact that even the slowest and most “difficult” passages of his films are taut with an awed tension, engendering a natural suspicion that something so self-involved shouldn’t be so entertaining. In that regard, “Post Tenebras Lux” is perhaps the most lucid distillation of Reygadas’ cinema to date, his long-shot long takes daring the viewer’s disinterest, but his twin penchants for (unsimulated?) sex and (unsimulated?) violence steamrolling accusations of pretentiousness by skipping the mind and directly clutching for the guts and groin.

This dynamic is typified by an isolated sequence in which Juan and his wife visit a French swingers party, where the cool blue rooms are named after famous philosophers – it’s hard to say if the writings of Hegel or Rousseau have any bearing on the type of orgiastic screwing that goes down in their respective spaces, but the mere collision between high and low, the brainy and the banal, is a valuable text unto itself. Here is a film about the drama that exists between the boundless potential of our minds and the savage demands of our bodies, a tension that Reygadas is demonstrably incapable to solve, but urgently intent to soothe.

To that point, “Post Tenebras Lux” works so well because – even at its most random – it always feels like more of a single portrait of a man in crisis than it does an impish bouquet of provocative incidents. Perhaps this is in part because Juan’s self-reflection, the most jolting bits of which are entirely removed from his empirical experience (oh hey! how’d we get into the middle of a rugby scrum at an English boarding school for boys?), coheres around Reygadas’ almost palpable sense of self-reflection. You can feel the film’s autobiographical nature even before learning that Juan’s children are played by the filmmaker’s own (the seed is planted during a confrontational moment in the prologue when his daughter stares directly into the camera’s lens), the lack of a conventional plot calling attention to the narrative’s curious attitude and confessional purpose.

Moreover, the images in many (or is it all?) of the film’s exterior scenes are bevelled along the sides, which makes it look as though you’re seeing the frames through two pairs of glasses, like you’re not just seeing these characters but also their echoes. Alexis Zabe’s breathtaking cinematography ensures that aesthetic comparisons are inevitable, but among the other things that “Post Tenebras Lux” shares in common with Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” (and “Mulholland Drive,” while we’re at it) is how the films narrow and crystalize their meaning over the first 4/5 of their running times, building to a singularly dramatic event that seems to provide the missing puzzle piece, only to then toss the whole thing in the air, gifting the viewer the film’s final passages to ascribe a meaning of their own design. If all else fails, let Neil Young do some of the work for you.

The cumulative effect is a sense of frustrated wonder, a sustained awe that ultimately overwhelms the cynicism invited by Reygadas’ most bewildering choices (i.e. the final scene), and the fact that he’s entering the part of his life as an auteur at which an artistic signature is easily confused for antagonistic schtick. But the confidence of Reygadas’ filmmaking only enhances the power of his inquiry, and this is nothing if not a portrait of someone (or someones) trying to find a small haven from the negativity that surrounds us all. This is the story of someone who wants to be better. We’re not entirely sure who that someone is, or what being “better” even entails, but it would be foolish to reject “Post Tenebras Lux” for not defining the desire that it so compellingly encourages us to reckon with in ourselves.

SCORE: 8.8 / 10.0

Movie & TV Awards 2018