By Don Simpson | April 30, 2013
Director: Carlos Reygadas
Writer: Carlos Reygadas
Starring: Adolfo Jiménez Castro, Nathalia Acevedo, Rut Reygadas, Eleazar Reygadas, Willebaldo Torres
From the very moment that writer-director Carlos Reygadas decided to use a Latin title for his latest film, he destined Post Tenebras Lux to be labeled as pretentious in certain circles of critics. Those who find Latin titles to be pretentious might then discover further levels of pretension throughout Reygadas’ high-minded approach to the cinematic form. For one, his choice to shoot Post Tenebras Lux in the Academy ratio of 1.375:1 with a fisheye lens; another is Reygadas’ purposeful avoidance of a coherent meaning or logical structuring of the narrative.
Post Tenebras Lux is certainly the most audaciously unique film I have seen in a long time; I would not label it as pretentious, however, since that would imply that there is nothing to back up the densely shrouded mystery of the film’s meaning. Though I have yet to connect all of the puzzle pieces, I believe that Post Tenebras Lux is as profound as it purports to be. Every aspect of this film is saturated with meaning and significance, whether or not I am smart enough to decipher it all (especially after one viewing) is an entirely different question. Then again, as with any form of art, the meaning is in the eye of the beholder. I do not pretend to speak in absolutes, but instead I will speak only to my sense of the film’s meaning(s).
Let’s start with the film’s title, which translates to “After Darkness Light” or “Light After Darkness.” The darkness probably refers to limbo, in which case the light that comes afterwards would be the hereafter. One of the most obvious threads of meaning throughout Post Tenebras Lux is Juan’s (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) coming to terms with a guilty conscience that might just be killing him from the inside. As perceived realities, memories and dreams collide in Post Tenebras Lux, the free-flowing stream of seemingly unrelated scenes begin to congeal into what might just be Juan’s final act of penance.
Juan is a man with violent tendencies; by his own admittance, he hurts the one’s he loves the most. Juan has relocated with his wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) and their two kids, Rut (Rut Reygadas) and Eleazar (Eleazar Reygadas), to a remote region of Mexico. He might believe that his violent tendencies will be considered more “normal” in an economically devastated community that is riddled by violent and neglectful patriarchs, and plagued by alcoholism, thievery, murder and suicide.
Though Juan is a native Mexican, the surrounding population has a much darker skin tone than he does. Assuming that the footage of a rugby match at an English boys’ school refers to Juan’s past, it probably signifies his European education and life of privilege. Though his “white guilt” leads him to believe otherwise, Juan’s wealth, history and skin tone have constructed an impenetrable wall between him and the people native to the region. Juan can try to ingratiate himself all he wants, but in their eyes he will always be a rich gringo with a fancy new house.
Juan seems haunted by a Catholic guilt for being an overtly sexual creature. Feeling like Natalia doesn’t give him enough sex, he confesses that his overindulgence of internet porn for masturbatory purposes is pushing the limits of perversion. In one sequence (which may or may not be a dream), Juan watches Natalia have sex with strangers in a sauna room titled the Duchamp Room (referencing Duchamp’s piece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even). A red demon with prominently dangling genitals and arrow-tipped tail makes two appearances — presented to us as Eleazar’s nightmares, this image is most likely derived from Juan’s fears that his own son perceives him to be a devilish sexual predator.
While on the subject of dreams… If there is one reason to watch Post Tenebras Lux, it is the opening sequence. Guaranteed to emblazon itself on your mind — this is as unforgettable as cinematic images get — this one sequence reveals so much about Reygadas’ film. Assuming that these images actually belong to Juan, not Rut, then this is the first example of Juan’s cripplingly pervasive guilt. As the safe and familiar rapidly evolve into potential aggressors, this idyllic childish dream dissolves into a horrible nightmare. Not only does Juan feel totally inept as a parent, due to his inability to provide safety and security for Rut, but it also suggests that Juan might be at the root of what frightens her.
First and foremost, the opening sequence establishes the heavily manipulated perspective of the film. The camera’s eye alternates from a first-person perspective to observational vantage points (alluding to the multiplicity of perspectives and realities throughout the film). The framing is purposefully boxed in, with an ever-present tunnel vision focus on the center of the screen (a suggestion that this film has a very specific focus and a purposeful manipulation of perception). Then, as the fisheye lens blurs and distorts the boundaries of the 1.375:1 frame, the surreal duplicity of any objects on the periphery of the screen gives the allusion that we are observing these images through beveled glass. In other words, we are all just Peeping Toms complacently watching as someone else atones for their horrible sins.