I urged so many people to see Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (2007) that after a while I began to think I should be getting a commission from its producers. Set in, and using mostly nonprofessional actors drawn from, an insular Mennonite community in the Mexican countryside, the film tracks the repercussions of an adulterous affair between a farmer whose wife is ill and a younger woman. The characters generate intensely conflicted sympathies, and their predicament is engrossing—but one could happily spend a few hours just looking at the faces of Reygadas’s cast. Craggy, pale, and ghostlike beside their Mexican neighbors, the Mennonites appear to have wandered in from a painting by Hans Memling, or to have traveled to Central America by spaceship from some medieval German colony on Mars. Nothing in the film is predictable, and much of it seems at once peculiar and inspired.
If I advise fewer people to see Reygadas’s new film, Post Tenebras Lux, it’s not only because I liked it less than Silent Light—but also because it is so much harder to explain what exactly I am proposing that they watch. I could say that the film is about an attractive, privileged, urban Mexican couple, Juan and Natalia, who take their two young children, Rut and Eleazar, to live in the scenic rural heartland. I could say that it is about the way in which humans fit (and fail to fit) into the natural world. I could say that the hero has anger-management problems and an addiction to internet porn, and that his interactions with the locals who work for him are unclear and complex. I could say that the film considers questions of masculinity and male violence, and that it draws on experiences (such as a rugby scrimmage at a British boys’ school) from its director’s past. Reygadas himself has described his subject as “feelings, memories, dreams, things I’ve hoped for, fears, facts of my current life.” I might add that much of the film was photographed with a bevelled lens that blurs the edges (and occasionally the center) of each shot, as if we were observing the action from inside a steamy bathroom shower, and that it is the only film I have ever seen in which a man decapitates himself, using only his own bare hands.
Post Tenebras Lux is as challenging to summarize or describe as a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, the director who has most strongly influenced Reygadas. Like Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975), it shifts back and forth between present and past, reality and fantasy, childhood and adulthood. It offers us a set of images and sequences to which it repeatedly returns; with each of these reprises the image or sequence takes on additional meaning, depth, and nuance. And like the hero of The Mirror, Juan dies in his bed, surrounded by loved ones and grieving for the world he is about to leave.
The film opens with a powerful, almost shockingly beautiful scene in which a cherubic little girl toddles through a muddy field, amid a pack of barking dogs and a herd of cattle; horses gallop past. Darkness is falling, a storm is coming up, flashes of lightning grow more threatening and intense. To calm my own anxiety, I had to keep reminding myself that the child (played by Reygadas’s daughter Rut) is not alone, as she appears to be, but is in fact being watched over by a camera crew. That calm lasted only until the beginning of the nightmarish sequence that follows. A luminous orange cartoon devil, with horns, a barbed tail, and pendulous genitals, enters the darkened house in which Juan and his family are asleep. Carrying the rectangular toolbox that a plumber or electrician might bring to a job, he creeps stealthily along the corridor, peeking into the bedrooms, unseen by anyone but little Eleazar.
Part of what impressed me about Silent Light was my sense that Reygadas had not only been influenced by my own favorite films, but that he had seen those films in the same way and admired them for the same reasons that I had. He appeared to have learned, from the Hungarian director Béla Tarr, how to keep viewers engaged by long passages in which almost nothing happens, because we have confidence that what we are seeing will pay off, that these moments of stasis will be followed by others that are far more dramatic, and that it will all add up to something: a delicate situation that is resolved one way and then, suddenly, illogically but persuasively, given a whole different conclusion. There is a moment near the end of Silent Light that reminded me of the climax of Danish director Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955). I recalled once asking a filmmaker friend to name a movie that could persuade me that I’d witnessed a miracle. He answered instantly and, as it turned out, correctly: Ordet. Quoting from Dreyer’s film, Silent Light likewise persuades us that we have seen something uncanny and wondrous.
In Post Tenebras Lux, if we are hoping for the coherent narrative that drew us through Silent Light, we must instead settle for a montage of scenes that appear to have been assembled in an order understood best—and perhaps only—by the director. There is a sequence in which Juan and Natalia visit a European swingers club in which orgies occur in rooms named after Hegel and Duchamp; a family party at which Juan quotes a passage from War and Peace describing Pierre’s decision to retreat to the countryside; a scene in which Juan savagely beats a dog, and another in which one of his workmen cuts down a tree. Throughout there are moments suggesting a widening rift between Juan and Natalia, who is less enthusiastic than he is about their move from the city.
Like Reygadas’s earlier film Battle in Heaven (2005), in which a driver hired by a rich family in Mexico City turns against the daughter of his employers, Post Tenebras Lux takes on the subject of class divisions and class resentment. In one of the film’s smartest and most telling shots, we see Juan, Natalia, and their children walking up a cobblestone road to a local fiesta, lugging the encumbering baby equipment—a stroller, back packs, diaper bags—that, we can assume, doesn’t figure quite so prominently in the child-rearing culture of the campesinos with whom they are about to celebrate. Once they arrive at the party, where some of Juan and Natalia’s neighbors have already gotten aggressively drunk, we may find ourselves thinking of Béla Tarr’s fondness for filming the stumbling, inebriated peasantry; when one of the villagers (the film was shot in Morelos) refers to “we Mexicans,” he is clearly not including the light-skinned Juan.
And yet, as in Battle in Heaven, events play out in a way that fails to suggest that the legitimate grievances of the poor must be addressed by the rich, but rather implies that the rich might be wise to respect the traditionally strict boundaries between master and servant, and to consider doing more thorough background checks before hiring their workers. The men who work for Juan reveal themselves to be considerably less trustworthy and stable than he might have hoped.
Last May, Post Tenebras Lux was awarded the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival—while getting boos and catcalls from some members of the audience. Neither of these facts is difficult to understand. The film is at once brilliant and banal, original and derivative, heartfelt and pretentious. Its sheer visual gorgeousness is enthralling, yet there are passages that seem arty and self-indulgent, and that make us wonder: Why would a director attempt to redo what Tarkovsky has already done so well?
The most intriguing and moving scene in Post Tenebras Lux takes place at a meeting of a local twelve-step recovery group to which one of Juan’s workers, a man known as Siete (Seven), takes him. One by one the men get up and describe, in what we intuit are their own words, the personal crises that drove them to seek help from the group. The camera pans the room. The assembled participants, whom we glimpse only briefly, are clearly not professional actors; they are as unconventionally attractive as the Mennonite characters in Silent Light. Their highly condensed confessions are spellbinding and affecting. I was sorry when the scene ended and we returned to Juan and his neurotic preoccupations. It makes one wish that Reygadas will, in the future, redirect his attention away from the work of his cinematic heroes and his own memories and feelings—and return to the lives of others, and to the endlessly interesting faces and stories around him.
Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux is showing at Film Forum in New York through May 14.