Post Tenebras Lux : A Review

To review a film by Carlos Reygadas is a dangerous exercise. The Mexican born filmmaker blends his visuals with, as he says, “feelings, memories, dreams, things I’ve hoped for, fears, facts of my current life.” He aims for cinema where reason intervenes as little as possible.

“Real cinema,” says Reygadas, “is much closer to music. Music doesn’t represent anything, it is just something that will convey feeling. It doesn’t mean anything. I hate the idea that film is actually telling a story! The great part of film is to make you feel, not by the narrative.”

This expressionistic style lends itself to a very pure form of criticism, one that relies not on authorial intent, for as Reygadas himself said: “After I make a film I psychoanalyze myself retroactively so that I can give explanations to journalists and film people. But I don’t believe in those explanations myself.”

To the critic this is the equivalent of playing with house’s money, which makes it all the more surprising that critics are hedging bets when discussing Reygadas’ new film Post Tenebras Lux. It seems that most critics prefer to get little wrong and less right than to take the film by the horns.

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The movie begins with a little girl in a field, she wears boots and toddles amidst cows, dogs and mud. The sound of bells, barking and her own delighted yelps of “boca” give the scene a light mood, but as the scene stretches on so does the sky, dappled with clouds and the long hues of evening. A stampede of horses breaks into the scene, the girl approaches a black horned bull, darkness continues to close in on the solitary child. The dogs agitate a stallion, donkeys arrive, the sky, now the color of an ominous bruise, begins to crack and rumble. The child looks upward. After a nervous lowing from a cow the child laughs, but as lightning flashes and the storm untunes, she looks around and emits a worried, “No.” Then cries out for her mother. The child is lost in the black. In between flashes of lightning the title appears, one word at a time: Post. Tenebras. Lux.

The title is Latin for After Darkness Light, a motto of the Protestant Reformation (and perhaps a reference to the Vulgate translation of Job 17:12 which reads, Post tenebras spero lucem, meaning: after darkness I hope for light); and paired with the first scene the title becomes a sort of promise that hangs over the film. The film moves from physical darkness to metaphorical darkness, first in depicting a scene in which a glowing red, goat headed and hoofed figure enters a home with his toolbox. He orients himself, his dragon tail and bare pundendum wagging, and walks down the hall where a boy sees him entering the bedroom of his parents.

This scene is followed by Juan, the father of Rut, the little girl at the beginning, talking with Siete (who, we find out later, is a tree poacher and the owner of the home in which the devil entered). They attend an Addicts Anonymous meeting of sorts, where sins are confessed and accountability is taken. Juan confesses his sins are minor (internet pornography) in light of those he’d just heard, but over the next few scenes we see a darker more grotesque accounting of his deeds.

After brutally punishing one of his dogs, the movie cuts to a sex spa, where Juan shares his wife Natalie with anonymous men. Later he complains about their lack of sex, no doubt the fruit of his wrath and perversion, yet the movie skims over these repulsions as though nothing. No condemnation, no judgment, no hand wringing repentance; in fact when reckoning comes it is not due to any lurking moral, but mere conflict between the upper and lower classes.

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Juan is wealthy and fair skinned, something mentioned in a number of places (Rut even says Guera at the beginning which is slang for a light skinned girl), and on a trip to the beach his house is burgled by Siete and another man. When Juan has to turn around to pick up a stroller he interrupts them and is shot by Siete.

The movie leaps backwards and forwards in time, falling into dreams and visions without clear demarcation. There are a couple of scenes of a rugby game set in rainy England, there is a scene of a full grown Eleazar, Juan’s son, at the beach, eliding into a boyhood memory of the beach and the day’s decline into night. Siete returns home and is greeted by his children, then he returns home and his family is gone. Then the devil returns, walks down the hall, is seen by Siete’s son, older now, and enters the bedroom as he did at the beginning.

It leaps forcing the viewer to remember what comes after darkness. Toward the end the movie has Natalie serenading Juan, who acts as if he is on his deathbed, with Neil Young’s It’s a Dream:

In the morning when I wake up and listen to the sound
Of the birds outside on the roof
I try to ignore what the paper says
And I try not to read all the news
And I’ll hold you if you had a bad dream
And I hope it never comes true
‘Cause you and I been through so many things together
And the sun starts climbing the roof

It is a tuneless, wrenching rendition that ends with a broken duet and Natalie in tears:

It’s gone
Only a dream
And it’s fading now
Fading away
Only a dream
Just a memory without anywhere to stay

It’s a dream
Only a dream
And it’s fading now
Fading away

Siete comes, possibly to repent and turn himself in, but Eleazar tells him that his father has died. And maybe he did. In a movie such as this, even though we have seen him with an older Eleazar and Rut, perhaps that was a dream and he does indeed die. Siete wanders off and the film cuts to a series of trees falling in the woods. Few sounds are as satisfying as a tree falling in a forest, the tinny snap of branches and the deep earthy thump as it hits ground and we are treated to several falls before Siete wanders into an open field and kills himself as the rain begins to come down, building into a torrent.

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The evil in the film is never exposed nor condemned, but there is an abiding darkness and guilt that clings to the edges of the story, just as the filter used throughout the movie caused the edges to blur. There is the devil, the suicide, the marital difficulties, the slight guilt in porn addiction, and the fact that Juan calls his son “Little Worm”. This may seem nothing at all, but if his son is the little worm that makes him the big worm. Like the title, this may be a reference to the Reformation since Worm Theology is a derogatory term for Calvinism and draws from both the book of Job (25:6) as well as King David himself in Psalm 22:6, “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.”

On what may or may not be his deathbed Juan says, “Today I felt as I did as a little child,” drawing us back to the sense of innocence invoked by the beginning of the film. Reygadas depicts the failings of adults, their wickedness, greed, pettiness and lust, but gives no clues as to any form of redemption unless you count the cleansing rain and the sky who brings it. Grace is extra-narrative and all we can cling to is the hope and promise that after the darkness comes light, but at the very least we can say, as Job did that, “the womb shall forget him; the worm shall feed sweetly on him; he shall be no more remembered; and wickedness shall be broken as a tree.”

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