Mexican Expressionism, by Scott Nye
In case the little girl running through storm-clouded fields and commenting on the various animals around her doesn’t tip you off, the exceedingly delayed “POST…………TENEBRAS……….LUX” title sequence surely will – this is, indeed, a Big Important Art Film, full of mysterious, wild imagery, intangible connections, and that pervasive sense of dread and regret, possibly at your own decision for having entered. Even more than with his masterful Silent Light, Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas fulfills his determination to explore his world (the film is said to be autobiographical) through some rather unusual, and unusually expressive, means. While that certainly thrills me, I am not, in retrospect, so surprised by the derisive laughter heard throughout the screening at some of its more audacious imagery. When faced with the impossible, sometimes the natural response is one of abject rejection. But Reygadas, as all great artists eventually must, doesn’t let the threat of derision prevent his audacity, and calls us to meet his challenge.
Slowly, gradually, and with no small number of sideways expeditions (to an English rugby field, to a sex club in France, to the realm of either pure fantasy), we come to settle with a well-off family in the Mexican countryside. Juan and Natalia are at once a part of and apart from their natural environment, living in an ultra-modern home amidst a landscape and culture that seems to have largely stayed consistent for decades, if not centuries. Juan gets along with his neighbors, many of whom are really his employees, going so far as to attend an all-purpose addiction meeting with the man who ran his cable (and who hilariously details the extent of the services he provided upon given the chance to speak before the group). But as soon as he plans a vacation, he takes measures to ensure he won’t be robbed.
Within his own home, he’s unable to connect to his wife, who soothes him even throughout his awful behavior (there’s a brief, but fairly rough scene of animal cruelty, to which Natalia can only respond that he’s gotten much better about it). The bulk of their fights are over trivial matters, but the fundamental disconnect is so strongly felt, it need not be explicated, and when it builds to a moment of emotional release as simply and beautiful as anything I’ve seen at the movies, the why’s and how’s of where and when things went wrong become so much less important. Reygadas is fond of using non-actors in his films, to varying effect. Adolfo Jiménez Castro is sometimes a little clumsy, but beautifully aware through most of it. Nathalia Acevedo, on the other hand, is marvelous, so in touch with the film and her surroundings, powerfully expressive in close-up, and deeply affecting at the climax of her story.
But this is just the easier stuff to latch onto. Post Tenebras Lux is often a terrifying, unnerving experience once you lock into its particular rhythms and modes of expression, which extend from the observational to the cosmically expressionistic the further they seem to move away from the main narrative. Shots are often dizzying and disorienting, subtly “off” in ways you can’t always put your finger on; Reygadas understands precisely the visceral effect of composition and movement, when to put the audience at ease and how to craft deep unrest, sometimes to opposing effect. I couldn’t tell you what such passages mean, or even account for the entirety of the main narrative. But I came out rather uniquely shaken, as though the film were suggesting something indefinable, yet essential, not unlike what Martin Scorsese said about the hallway shot in Taxi Driver – “if I could really put it in words, I wouldn’t have had to put it on film.” Post Tenebras Lux is a film made with that sort of guiding philosophy.