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Film review: 'Post Tenebras Lux'

"Post Tenebras Lux," Carlos Reygadas' first feature since the stunning "Silent Light," becomes less mysterious than it at first seems.

Valérie Czech is seen in a sequence from Carlos Reygadas' "Post Tenebras Lux" Credit: Strand Releasing Valérie Czech is seen in a sequence from Carlos Reygadas' "Post Tenebras Lux"
Credit: Strand Releasing

‘Post Tenebras Lux’
Director: Carlos Reygadas
Stars: Adolfo Jimenez Castro, Nathalia Acevedo
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

“Post Tenebras Lux” is Latin for “light after darkness,” but what does the film “Post Tenebras Lux” mean? Does it matter? Is “meaning” perhaps overrated? The latest from Mexican formalist filmmaker Carlos Reygadas is, on first blush, a series of seemingly random, disconnected fragments. Take the first three of the film’s 23 segments: a little girl roams by herself among cows before it rains; a hot red cartoon devil, wielding a toolbox and no underpants, enters a home while its inhabitants sleep; a construction worker cuts down trees in a forest.

Eventually things settle down, somewhat, into a story (of sorts) concerning a middle-class family living in the middle of nowhere. But what about a never-again-discussed sequence set at a swingers orgy, where nudes of various builds and ages cavort through “The Duchamp Room” and “The Hegel Room?” And what do two brief scenes set in far-off England, where a rugby team preps for battle, have to do with anything?

Is Reygadas being deliberately obscure? His earlier films liked to shock art house audiences with self-consciously casual transgression. One (“Battle in Heaven”) opened with a young woman servicing an overweight middle-aged man (before a single tear ran down her cheek). His previous film, “Silent Light,” chilled out a bit, sincerely depicting adultery amongst a Mexican Mennonite community with a grandeur that made it seem cosmic, particularly during an opening time lapse shot where the world awoke, loudly and violently, with the dawn.

“Post Tenebras Lux” is less combative, even with an abrasive sound mix, that often turns up natural noises (rain, boots on concrete, mooing) up to 11, and images that sometimes boast distortion around the edges. A second viewing takes it from free associational to fairly contained. It’s the kind of art film that seems mysterious until a closer reading makes it feel smaller. Reygads attempts to throw us off his scent, with the orgy, a sudden Neil Young sing-a-long and an aggrieved man pulling off his own head. But it all goes back to an idea of family and unity, not as a conservative ideal but an ideal in general. It’s not for nothing that the final words, spoken by rugby players, are “They’re not going to win. They’ve got individuals, we’ve got a team.” He might as well (and in fact is) referring to the film's disjointed structure.

The theme might become more obvious over repeat viewings, but a specific message is still hard to find. That’s a good thing. There’s traces of liberal guilt, with the father trying and failing to connect with lower-income workers. (Reygadas’ other films also struggle with how to depict “the everyman.”) But Reygadas is portraying a problem, not solving it. “Post Tenebras Lux” may seem more mysterious before you “get it,” but it’s still mysterious in a less predictable way.

 
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