When Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas’ new film premiered at Cannes last year, it was apparently greeted with a chorus of boos. His previous films, Japon, Battle in Heaven and Silent Light had found favour with critics and he was often mentioned alongside film makers such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick. However, for many critics Reygadas had taken his distinctive brand of art cinema to new esoteric heights. He recently responded in a hostile and defensive manner, labelling critics (most likely the particular ones at Cannes) as hooligans. So with all the furore surrounding it, how does the actual film shape up?
Post Tenebras Lux has an unusual, somewhat sprawling narrative. While the central pull of the film revolves around a bourgeois Mexican family living in a rural community, the narrative flickers from one abstract setting to the next. In the opening scene we see the young daughter of the family wandering through a field of cows, full of apocalyptic threat. In the next scene a silent house is trespassed by a glowing, animated devil-like figure, observing the inhabitants in an eerie fashion. By this point the audience has realised they need to alter their perceptions of what they think is going to happen from scene to scene, and just follow where Reygadas takes us.
The family is made up of Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), a married couple, and their two young children. They have a strange relationship with their local community, an impoverished, mountainous place populated by misfits and those stricken of luck. As a wealthy and superficially prosperous unit, they are at odds with the earthy residents, yet make the odd visit into the shady local bar, or the crude support group shack they have set up. Domestically, things are not at all harmonious; Juan is brash and demanding, possessing a violent restlessness that manifests itself in internet pornography and lashing out at the family dogs. Natalia struggles to keep the family together, and has her own wants and desires to nurture. Their relationship is at breaking point.
The film is an aesthetic marvel. In his previous films Reygadas announced himself as a master of landscapes and faces, evoking the otherworldly images found in Tarkovsky’s work. This time Reygadas has chosen to shoot the film in a way that leaves the edges of the frame with a soft edge, as if the audience is looking through beer goggles. It’s a strange technique but it works, giving the visuals a woozy feeling. The sound design also plays a strong part, with both the crackle and boom of the frequent thunder storms and the rustle of the reeds in the nearby river. Nature has played a vital role in Reygadas’ work, mirroring the turmoil of the protagonists, and here it is no different.
Post Tenebras Lux is Reygadas’ most challenging film yet, but one I enjoyed for it’s distinct exoticism and unpredictability. His previous films had a strong moral foundation which has been clouded somewhat here in the abstract narrative, but there is still a strong hint of redemption as a possible theme. As well as the striking visuals, the film possesses an unusual boldness to experiment and surprise the audience. Many will find the elliptical, wayward plotting infuriating, but I loved the way Reygadas changed tack from scene to scene, each new image a visual delight with a different tension. Reygadas remains one of the most exciting directors working today.