A key distinction between Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' completely baffling "Post Tenebras Lux" and his previous feature "Silent Light" comes from comparing their opening sequences. "Silent Light" begins with a supremely lyrical shot of natural imagery slowly fading into sunburst colors over a time-lapsed morning. "Post Tenebras Lux" follows a young girl's perspective as she wanders around a herd of cows in a muddy open field, then pauses to watch as an ominous storm rolls in. The title is Latin for "after darkness, light," although it should be the other way around; the movie is smothered in bleak sensibilities and eludes precision at every turn, eventually devolving into a jumble of absurd moments. At turns wildly beautiful and pointlessly nonsensical, "Post Tenebras Lux" is Reygadas' weakest movie, but frequently awe-inspiring nonetheless.
The director's characteristically textured visual style this time relies on a ghosting effect that constantly blurs out the edges of the frame (and sometimes the center as well). Since the movie drifts between real and imagined worlds, rendering nostalgia and other emotions through its imagery, the blurriness actually props up the ambiguous mood better than any other, more sophisticated elements. Much of "Post Tenebras Lux" aspires for the advanced cinematic experience that "Silent Light" eloquently achieved, but Reygadas fails to make this one gel outside of individual fragments.
The movie focuses on an upper-class Mexican family (allegedly drawn, to some degree, from Reygadas' own), although it ends for no evident reason with a rugby team in England. In an interview with Variety, the director described the movie as a project in which "reason will intervene as little as possible, like an expressionist painting where you try to express what you’re feeling through the painting rather than depict what something looks like."
The operative word is "trying." From that opening sequence, he dovetails into a nighttime scene in the family's house, which is quietly invaded by a bright red animated devil carrying a toolbox. If "Post Tenebras Lux" aimed for simply an erratic collage of non sequiturs, then the random injection of supernatural elements into an otherwise mundane plot might fit just fine. Instead, the devil is the first sign of Reygadas' tendency throughout the movie to get distracted from his characters and the his ideas behind their existence.
The bulk of the story, if one can call it that, revolves around Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro), the confident man of the house who owns a wealthy estate in the country and lives with his wife and two small children, as well as various workers who help maintain the estate. For a while, Reygadas hovers in the details of this world. A family reunion comes and goes. There's a strange bathhouse orgy sequence that may or may not actually happen. At a certain point, a crime occurs that leaves Juan wounded and reflecting on his childhood, and finally the movie spirals into a hodgepodge of inexplicable events.
On the surface, "Post Tenebras Lux" marks a significant shift in Reygadas' oeuvre. The story initially appers to be more linear than "Silent Light," bridging the gap between his heavily story-oriented "Battle in Heaven" and his extremely understated debut, "Japón." In that regard, it's his most beguiling achievement, at times maintaining its edge with a hypnotic collage of ghostly events.
However, by combining a flimsy story with events that have virtually nothing to do with it, Reygadas constantly wrestles with but never manages to resolve his intentions. For such a wildly expressive movie, "Post Tenebras Lux" is also resoundingly hollow.
And yet it remains possible to watch it and just marvel at Reygadas' ability to routinely find a way back to hauntingly beautiful events both fantastical and otherwise. Despite the ethereal phenomena, one of the more striking moments merely finds Juan's wife playing Neil Young's "It's a Dream" on the home piano while the ailing man lies bedridden nearby. Around that same part of the movie, Juan relates his greater understanding of childhood nostalgia, an epiphany that — coupled with the title of the aforementioned song — may suggest that everything in "Post Tenebras Lux" exists inside its lead characters' heads.
That would at least explain the glaring shifts in focus. Borrowing a page from Lucretia Martel, Reygadas applies a subtle rhythm to his storytelling that allows the movie to drift from one moment to the next without making the plot undulations evident. You have to pull yourself out of it in order to realize when "Post Tenebras Lux" has shifted from one set of circumstances to another, particularly once it arrives at a hodgepodge of bizarrely violent events at the very end.
Reygadas' decision to enliven his climax with supernatural materials raining from the sky suggests this is his "Magnolia," an attempt to build on conventional situations by then pushing them into an abstract realm — except that Reygadas already achieved that with "Silent Light," and "Post Tenebras Lux" doesn't take the premise far enough.
Upon leaving the first Cannes press screening for the movie, I overheard a puzzled journalist wonder aloud if Reygadas was stoned for the duration of the shoot. That's an amusing possibility but misses the point. The issue with "Post Tenebras Lux" is that the narrative, not the filmmaker, feels dispiritedly half-baked.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Too experimental and divisive for much of a release, "Post Tenebras Lux" is bound to become a curiosity on the festival circuit and will likely receive a very small limited release in the U.S. only of interest to those already intrigued by Reygadas' existing work.