A malevolent spirit hovers over Post Tenebras Lux, and I’m not only referring to the horned, hoofed, glowing-red demon that prowls through a sleeping family’s house early on.
A Cannes winner from Mexican director Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light), this is a deep dive into a troubled psyche – perhaps Reygadas’, but certainly that of Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro), a wealthy husband and father of two young children who has moved his family to rural Mexico. Their affluent presence creates a sense of unease among the locals, while Juan suffers from an interior sense of unease, evidenced by his violent outbursts against the dogs that roam his property and his cruel disregard for the sexual dignity of his wife (Nathalia Acevedo).
This description may give you the impression that Post Tenebras Lux has a conventional plot. It does not. Juan and his family are the most common figures, but even their scenes appear out of chronological order, so that we get glimpses into their future and (perhaps?) their past. The rest of the running time is filled with peripheral vignettes, some of which are loosely connected to this main narrative thread (conversations among the locals living near Juan’s property) and others of which seem completely extraneous (that demon, a rugby match that appears to be taking place somewhere in the United Kingdom).
If there’s a unifying concept to all of this it’s the idea of defilement.
If there’s a unifying concept to all of this it’s the idea of defilement. Juan nearly beats a dog to death. Addicts at a 12-step meeting share tales of self-abuse. Trees are illegally cut down. Juan’s wife, tears on her face, submits at a sex club. It’s deadening stuff. By the time we get an extended scene of Juan’s dogs gnawing at fresh bones, you may feel like one of the bones yourself.
And yet, Post Tenebras Lux also throbs with natural beauty, captured with an elemental elegance by cinematographer Alexis Zabe. The jungle surrounding Juan’s estate is a lush Eden, while a foray to the sea bathes us in surf and sun. Don’t mistake these visuals for solace, however. Unlike the films of Terrence Malick, in which nature is often a balm, the flora and fauna of Post Tenebras Lux provide no respite. Indeed, Reygadas and Zabe employ a visual effect so that whenever there is an exterior scene, the screen appears blurred at the edges, warping much of what we see. Outside, in nature, the edges are always full of uncertainty.
The movie’s opening scene is especially distressing in this way, as Juan’s toddler daughter (Rut Reygadas, the director’s own child) rambles alone through a field amidst trampling cows and herding dogs. The setting sun casts a stunning glow, romantically refracted at the edges of the screen by that blurred effect. But then things get darker, murkier, and no adult comes for the girl. Soon it’s black, except for bursts of lightning and the staccato appearance of the title on the screen: “Post” “Tenebras” “Lux”
Latin for “light after darkness,” this phrase was used as a Calvinist motto during the Protestant Reformation. Reygadas’ intention is less clear; if he means to imply that his movie offers some sort of hope, I didn’t find it. The light here is scant, weak, bleary. The aforementioned demon carries a toolbox with him, and as he disappears into the bedroom of a sleeping couple you feel certain his intention is to maim. In an emotional and spiritual sense, Post Tenebras Lux does the same.