Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux is an incredible film full of both visual beauty and ugliness. It had been awhile since a film has transported me to a world so interesting, complicated, and thought provoking.
It reminded me how, through the use of sight and sound, cinema is able to reflect the world in all of its victories and struggles in such a visceral fashion. Yet when I went to look at the critical reviews of the film I found it to be pretty divisive with some as infatuated with it as I was and others finding it a pretentious and hollow film.
I understand why it is a divisive film. It is slow, fragmented, and at times confusing. However I do not think these are flaws, but rather attributes that make it the powerful film that it is.
A common critique against the film is that it is a beautiful but hollow film; another example of style over substance.
In my opinion this could not be farther from the truth. The title is Latin for ‘light after darkness’ and was first used in the Latin translation of the book of Job. The book of Job is a book about the immense suffering of a man brought on by the Satan[i]. At the end however Job receives in double everything he lost at the beginning of the story. Reygadas’s film is about the sufferings and victories present in everyday life. The goal of the film is not necessarily to tell a narrative, but present a vision of what life is like.
Scene after scene Post Tenebras Lux presents light and darkness, hate and love, violence and peace, redemption and despair, selfishness and selflessness, and beauty and ugliness. In the film these opposing forces are constantly at war with one another (symbolized perhaps a bit heavy handedly in the rugby match sequences). Although there are some jolting scenes of violence and sexuality, a majority of film locates these struggles imbedded in the routine of everyday life.
The story of the film follows a rich family who live in a mountain house. Surrounding their home is an impoverished village full of struggling men and women. Reygadas creates a troubling picture of a society and although, not the main focuses, issues of class and patriarchy are very present. The film tells the stories of these people out of chronological order and in fragments. It is only once Post Tenebras Lux is over does the viewer have some kind of grasp of what happened to the family and the villagers around them. If one is trying to follow a typical narrative then it is easy to see how the film would be frustrating and alienating.
As audience members we are used to becoming involved with a film by means of latching onto and relating to a character, but here one realizes whom the main characters are about halfway through the film. It reminds me of the novels of Toni Morrison where it is only towards the end does what get a grasp of what is happening and what has happened.[ii]
To fully enjoy the film one must focus on what is currently being shown to us and not think about what will happen next. It calls for the viewer to watch fully in the present. The filmmaking, lighting, and setting/environment in the film make for a highly immersive experience and if one follows the images instead of the characters I find it to be an involving film that is anything but alienating.
So in many ways Post Tenebras Lux fails: it fails to explain all that it shows, it fails to have a narrative structure, and it fails to have a main protagonist that the audience can follow.
However it succeeds in creating a portrait not only of society, but also the world in all of its pains and beauties. It aims to present the mysteries of life and through its jumbled fragmented structure Post Tenebras Lux acknowledges the truth that existence is full of ambiguities.
And this, in my opinion, is quite the achievement.
[i] This is important to mention because although the Satan referred to in the book of Job is actually not referencing the contemporary Christian idea of Satan, it seems that Reygadas is. In the second scene of the film a glowing red devil with a toolbox walks into the bedroom of the films main married couple.
[ii] Specifically her novel Paradise.