Director Carlos Reygadas' first feature length effort since 2007's 'Silent Light' is something of a polarizing experience, to put it mildly. The film received boos and jeers following its Cannes screening in 2012, and yet its director was awarded the Best Director prize at the same festival. 'Post Tenebras Lux' seemingly eschews the idea of a true narrative at nearly every turn; instead it relies almost entirely on the presentation of feeling and atmosphere through a calculated use of visuals, audio elements, and heavy symbolism. And yet, amidst all that, it is a film that refuses to expound on most of its imagery, resulting in an experience that is intricate and opaque, and fascinatingly inaccessible at times. It is not terribly concerned with any preconceived notions of story or the audience's expectations thereof, and as such, Reygadas' film can easily seen as daunting, frustrating, or even completely off-putting to some, while being captivating in its impenetrability to others.
An oftentimes-gorgeous film, 'Post Tenebras Lux' introduces itself through a lengthy opening sequence wherein a young girl named Rut (Reygadas' own daughter) runs, squealing with delight, through a muddy field surrounded by dogs and cows. Rut is seemingly on her own, eyes wide with fascination, but as a the scene progresses, and the thunderstorm on the horizon moves to eventually engulf what little natural light was present, the atmosphere of the moment transitions from an expression of childlike glee, to that of an ominous, unnamed dread, which is further heightened by Rut calling for her mother. The unsettling tension is broken when Reygadas makes one of the film's many abrupt segues into a seemingly unrelated storyline, as a bright red, animated demon enters a home carrying a toolbox. Aside from a few incidental noises, the scene is all but silent. The demon (the devil, Lucifer, what have you) quietly makes his way from the kitchen to the hallway, stopping for a moment to mutely address a child woken by his presence, before disturbingly entering the room of the boy's sleeping parents and closing the door behind him. This happens again in the film, with no explanation.
Despite the seemingly unrelated nature of these separate storylines, it would be unfair to say 'Post Tenebras Lux' lacks a narrative completely; there is an intriguing story built around Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro), his wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), and their two children, the aforementioned Rut and her older brother Eleazar (also Reygadas' real-life child). Juan lives in a very modern house in Mexico's rural countryside, but from the glimpses we get, there's little to be enjoyed in that home. Tension seems to follow Juan in every encounter he has, whether it is with his wife, a gardener, a former employee who goes by Seven, or even a frightened dog. Reygadas inserts a subplot about addiction and uncontrollable anger, and the anguish and guilt that arises from those afflictions and the often-unsuccessful efforts some people make to confront or recover from them. This idea of recovery is the only time the film suggests an overt link between the events happening on screen and the title, which translates from 'Post Tenebras Lux' to Light After Darkness; the rest of the time, much of what transpires works in the opposite direction – that is: the film continually pushes forward into progressively dark, surreal territory.
Perhaps because Reygadas uses such a jumbled chronology to present a series of vaguely interconnected scenes in which we see Juan, Natalia, and their children in various stages of their lives, and because the director refuses to provide much in the way of context for them, each glimpse begins to feel simultaneously weighted by the very significance it continually wishes to evade. Juan's various transformations throughout the picture suggest a considerable amount of time passes during the film's runtime, with only the varying ages of the children acting as anchor to when these events might have taken place. There's a family reunion filled with contentious relatives; an argument with a local farmer about being a true Mexican; and a brief, but indelible moment when Juan and Natalia are at a steam room orgy that asks the question, "What, precisely, is real, and what is being imagined by these characters?"
This perplexing variable is given additional weight when Juan is convalescing after being attacked, and his wife lovingly, but remarkably off-key, sings a rendition of Neil Young's 'It's a Dream.' The idea that the film vacillates between moments that are real, imagined, or simply half-remembered is rendered visually apparent throughout the entire film, as Reygadas presents a litany of exterior shots through a cinematographic method that blurs the edges of the frame, resulting in haunted scenes where objects and people disappear, reappear, and become doubled, all in the same shot. These distorted images become a collage of events refracted through the mind's eye, only the audience is left in the dark as to whose mind is actually doing the viewing, imagining, or half-remembering, as it were. The only conclusion one might come to, then, is: everyone.
In creating 'Post Tenebras Lux' Reygadas has almost developed his own language for what transpires on-screen. The seemingly discordant, jarring transitions from heavily symbolic imagery, to cold, emotionless perversity, to supernatural oddness and violence creates the impression that the film is intended to be an expression of the sensations one feels but cannot put to words, rather than a depiction of any single event or story. The end result is clearly part introspection on behalf of the filmmaker – who has stated this is a more personal, semi-autobiographical film, which with the inclusion of his children, his home, and a disconnected sequence depicting an English boys' school rugby match (at a school Reygadas himself apparently attended) that much is clear – but it is also part dream, part imagination, and part waking nightmare that asks much more of its audience than most films ever bother to ask.
A deliberately confounding work of art that is either implicitly understood in the moment (differently by everyone, to be sure), or is found to be utterly displeasing in its enigmatic structure. Either way, 'Post Tenebras Lux' will leave those who adore it searching as much for a sense of its meaning as those who reviled every last frame. The delight in watching, then, comes from accepting that this expression of what is seen, known, and merely believed staunchly refuses to be anything remotely easy, or even generally palatable; its pleasure is derived simply from being a unique uncompromising vision.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Post Tenebras Lux' comes as a single 50GB Blu-ray in the standard keepcase. The disc is comes from Strand Releasing Entertainment, and only includes a look at a handful of other titles from the company. The disc will jump directly to the top menu, where you can choose set up, or to watch the film. It includes English subtitles and a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 track.
The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio that actually plays quite well with Reygadas' visual aesthetic and device with regard to the perpetually blurred edges of the image's frame. Despite this aspect, the image presented here with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 codec is incredibly clear and rich with detail. There are some truly striking images presented in this film, and the transfer not only beautifully brings them to life, but it also brings out a startling array of color that plays up the rural Mexican countryside where Juan and his family reside. Vegetation takes center stage here, as the dense forests in which some of the film is spent truly looks alive with bright greens and subtle shades of earthy brown that does its job in bringing the audience to a sensorial comprehension of the symbolism of the film.
In addition to the abundant fine detail and luminous colors, the image has a high contrast level that produces rich, robust black levels with excellent shadow delineation. If there was a problem with the image, it would have to be that occasionally, it can run a little soft in certain areas, which isn't too much of a detraction from the rest of the film, but it does keep it from being a perfect picture. There's some question of just how deliberate some of these softer scenes are, given the nature of the film, so, as it stands, that aspect of the image remains questionable in terms of intent.
This is the kind of film where everything that is seen and heard feels calculated to finest detail, and the image is fairly representative of that: it is clean, clear, and richly detailed to give a confounding movie a reason to be watched again.
Despite the film's reliance on sensory elements like image and sound, 'Post Tenebras Lux' has been given a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Now that sounds like it might be shortchanging the listener in this day and age of DTS-HD mixes and whatnot, but the mix here actually sounds quite nice. It delivers a strong and clear dialogue track, and manages to create a rich and layered atmosphere that plainly establishes a myriad of settings from bustling family reunions, to the sound of orgies echoing against the tiles of a bathhouse. But it also handles silence well; and conveys that general lack of sound by juxtaposing stillness with the sharp crackle of a tree collapsing in the middle of a forest, making it resonate like thunder overhead.
The sound is seemingly everywhere at once; the dialogue coming from multiple channels at times, even though it mostly favors the center and front channels. But there is sense that the sound is moving freely and discretely amongst the separate channels and that it is constantly working to generate an immersive listening experience. If there were to be a drawback, it would be that sounds and voices in certain interior scenes can be a little pitchy, or tinny sounding; they reproduce the normally strong and clear-sounding dialogue in a way that deliberately seems to have it sound just slightly off, or not quite as strong as in other scenes. The moment when Natalia lovingly sings the Neil Young tune is perfect example of this. Other mixes might have played this up, but here it sounds a little softer, a little tinny and hollow, and this may have been exactly what the director was going for.
Overall, though, the sound here is quite good, and aside from a few odd things here and there, it should leave most listeners satisfied.
'Post Tenebras Lux' will be a difficult or maddening film for some, and a work of indecipherable art to others. It mixes genres at will, leaves segments seemingly unresolved, and thinks of chronology as something for others to worry about, and yet Reygadas has made a gorgeous, film that's worth revisiting just to try and piece it together – even though it feels like that may not be the point. Watching the movie it becomes apparent that it was crafted to be felt more than understood or comprehended, which suggests that whatever your initial gut reaction to the film – whether its adoration or revulsion – is the one that will stick with you regardless of repeat viewings. It's a challenging work to be sure, but one that more people should be willing to check out. With very nice image and sound, plus some interesting extras, this one comes recommended.