‘POST TENEBRAS LUX’ ★★★
Juan Adolfo Jimenez Castro
Natalia Nathalia Acevedo
El Siete Willebaldo Torres
Strand Releasing presents a film written and directed by Carlos Reygadas. Running time: 115 minutes. In Spanish, French and English, with English subtitles. No MPAA rating (brief scenes of adult sexual nudity and puppy disciplinary cruelty). Opening Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Updated: June 25, 2013 6:06AM
In “Post Tenebras Lux,” writer-director Carlos Reygadas portrays a Mexican family in profound communion with lightning, dogs, mud, cows, waves and falling trees. He may be murky about issues of class and Christianity, but he is divinely lucid when beholding nature.
Calling “narrative” a “necessary evil,” Reygadas has told interviewers: “I’m not a storyteller” and “I hate the idea that film is actually telling a story!” Formerly an international law researcher, he won best director honors for “Post Tenebras Lux” at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
Nonetheless, each of his four dramas to date features a married, middle-aged man in crisis. This time, the upper-middle class Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) and wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) live in rural Mexico with their young children and hired help. Reygadas shot “Post Tenebras Lux” in his own house, along with his own two kids and 10 dogs. Most of the cast are local non-actors. This ambitious art film leaps with no apparent logic to two other locations: a Belgian bathhouse where Natalia has sex with strangers as Juan watches, and a schoolboys’ rugby game in England. (Reygadas once played on Mexico’s national team.) However, no character in this film is connected to these scenes. Reygadas also likes to play with geography. Set in rural Mexico, his first film, “Japon,” has nothing to do with Japan. At least that film’s soccer scene, like those in his “Silent Light” and “Battle in Heaven,” makes sense and connects to its characters.
Other signature elements from Reygadas’ earlier works return in “Post Tenebras Lux”: acts of animal cruelty and performances of songs. In an outburst that’s difficult to watch, Juan thrashes a puppy who looks abjectly guilty of some offscreen misdeed. Later he asks his wife to sing Neal Young’s “It’s a Dream.” Playing a badly tuned piano, she sings just as badly, yet this is an oddly wonderful interlude.
Reygadas’ characters experience cosmic and Christian epiphanies. God, the Virgin Mary, the Lady of Guadalupe, the Mennonite faith and the devil figure in earlier films. “Post Tenebras Lux” is Latin for “after darkness, light,” a saying from the Book of Job. Here we see a silhouetted, naked devil with a tail and horns make two nocturnal visits. He carries a blue tool box. His meaning as a symbol remains elusive.
This glowing CGI apparition is just one of the luminous marvels that illuminate nothing in any rational way. It supplies one more ravishing image for our eyes. One monstrous act toward the end employs a more realistic special effect: A murderer atones for his sin by pulling off his own head. A torrential rain of blood then falls from the heavens.
Spectacle matters more than story for Reygadas, who wants to create a world onscreen instead of developing characters or critiquing society. In his interviews, he likes to remind us the Age of Enlightenment introduced reason to Europe, where he studied and lived before moving back to his native Mexico, and that legacy of logic blinds us to nature. He offers a corrective lens in “Post Tenebras Lux.” He reveres the startling, unsettling light after sunset.
Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer and reviewer.