Even with its audience-unfriendly head games and confusions, Post Tenebras Lux is an imposing spiritual work, and totally original.
By Gerald Peary
Post Tenebras Lux, the impossibly titled film from the very talented Mexican filmmaker, Carlos Reygedas (Japón, Battle in Heaven), was solidly booed at Cannes 2012 and also won the Best Director prize. I can understand both reactions to this uncanny work, which plays at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts through June 20. The boos are for Reygedas hopping about in time without motivation or reason, for having too many inscrutable scenes that might or might not really happen, and for tacking on an inscrutable ending on a rugby field at a boys school in England that has nothing to do with the Mexico-set story. As for the Best Director award, even with its audience-unfriendly head games and confusions, Post Tenebras Lux is an imposing spiritual work and totally original.
The title? I don’t speak Latin, but it is said to translate as “After darkness, light.” Despair to hope. The movie, however, starts with an eight and a half minute prelude that spirals the opposite way. A two-year-old girl, Rut, stands in a field in the late afternoon, happily surrounded by cows, donkeys, and three large, slobbering dogs. But this pastoral paradise emits a threatening undertow, as the dogs jump at the cows and donkeys, making those animals race about nervously. Are the dogs also a threat to the tiny girl? She starts crying out for her mummy and daddy, and the day gets darker and darker, and there is thunder above. And a deeper darkness.
Welcome to Carlos Reygedas’s manichean universe, its metaphysical underpinnings made evident in the film’s weird-tales second scene. We are inside the kitchen of someone’s house, and a door opens from outside. In walks, yep, The Devil! He’s a tall, all-red, glowing apparition (CGI) with hoofs and a tail and a vague sex thing between his legs. And he’s carrying—I can’t fathom why—a tool kit! As silent as a handyman Santa Claus toting in presents, he enters several rooms, sights children in each, and then retreats, slips quickly out the back door. He does no harm, he doesn’t need to, because Satan’s army occupies Reygedas’s earth.
Flash ahead to a kind of revival meeting, an obvious stand-in for our sin-saturated world: various down-and-defeated Mexican men tell their troubling stories of woe, dope, alcohol, and sexual depravity. There are some vague plans proffered about becoming better human beings. Maybe. One of the speakers is Seven (Willebaldo Torres), a drifter who, as he later confesses, beat up his father for having sex with his teenage sister, ran away, got married himself and became an abusive husband and father. And ran away again. Seven has brought his friend to the meeting, actually the man he works for, who has his own problems. Our messed-up protagonist, Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro).
Unlike the dirt-poor, battered-down ensemble at the revival meeting, Juan is a prosperous architect living in a gorgeous house, which he has built in the countryside. He is married to a fine woman, Natalia (Nathalia Acvedo), and they have two beautiful children, Eleazar and Rut, the girl in the first scene. But Juan, as we learn, has a porn addiction that keeps him up late each night staring at a computer screen. His sex life with his wife is lousy to non-existent. And the mark of Cain, he has a propensity to violence. For no reason, he beats up one of his dogs, then guiltily sends it to a veterinarian to save its crippled life.
Juan and Seven, boss and hired hand, confess to each other their decadent inner lives. But where are there signs of penance? We watch Seven at a freelance job, severing the limbs of lovely trees with a power saw. A desecration. We witness Juan literally descend into a kind of Hell with his wife in tow: they enter a fog-enshrouded sex club, perhaps in France, where the naked (and those in towels) are all pale, ugly, and bloated, suggesting waterlogged corpses after a mass drowning.
And what of the “light” promised in the title of the film? If it’s Lucifer versus God, where oh where is the good Lord? As in the religious cinema of Robert Bresson and Terence Malick, the deeply cruel, sordid world of man makes it incredibly hard to see the majesty of God. But for the penitent, it peeks through. A reborn Juan finally sees it, “How all things are shining all the time.” In the middle of his hurtful, determinedly unhappy film, Reygedas offers his viewers (including atheist me) a beautiful and privileged glance at the divine: a scene on a beach in which the camera moves upward from the humans on the sand and holds for a time on an extraordinarily radiant, beatific sky.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.