The many fans of philosopher-filmmaker Terrence Malick (To the Wonder, The Tree of Life) will find the same provocations and rewards in the films of Mexican iconoclast Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light, Battle in Heaven). Intentionally indistinct plots, cryptic characters, an unflinching eye for human crimes against nature (and, inevitably, other people) and an overriding urge to capture the in-the-moment experience of being alive -- theirs is the allusive poetry of alienation in the age of globalization and global warming. Unexpectedly and counterintuitively, Reygadas and Malick transpose Michelangelo Antonioni's existential urban angst to the exurbs, and beyond.
Reygadas' latest, Post Tenebras Lux (translated from the Latin as After Darkness, Light), opens with a lengthy sequence of a very young girl (the filmmaker's daughter) alone in a muddy open field of cows, dogs and donkeys. Playful exploration gradually turns to apprehension, and cuteness evaporates in dusky foreboding. Reygadas may merely be setting a story in motion with a tease of mystery, or elegantly encapsulating the universal experience of childhood exuberance and innocence sanded away by disappointment, betrayal, and everyday worry.
The girl, Rut, lives comfortably and happily with her father, a self-assured architect named Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro), her quietly unsatisfied mother Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), and her cheerful brother Eleazer (played by her real-life sibling). They live in a beautiful modern house weirdly situated in the middle of nowhere, which encourages us to consider class differences long before they manifest themselves.
The fact that Reygadas filmed in and around his own home, and cast his children, may lead the viewer to assume that Post Tenebras Lux is at least partially autobiographical. The movie sure doesn't feel that way, though, largely because Reygadas' location-shifting, non-chronological approach allows ample space to apply one's own interpretation of events. Even scenes that might be drawn from his own experience, such as a barbed conversation among adult cousins at a wedding reception, are shot with the objectivity of documentary.
The antithesis of the noise-saturated summer blockbusters, Post Tenebras Lux is a movie in which individual sounds -- the ignition of a chainsaw in proximity to trees, for example -- or stray lines of dialogue are mildly terrifying. There's an undercurrent of repressed and explicit violence (dogs are the preferred target in two shocking sequences) that is mitigated by familial affection and by the earnest aspirations expressed by rough-hewn men at an AA meeting.
Reygadas, who received the Best Director prize from the Cannes jury in 2012, has said that Post Tenebras Lux is about the "clash between Western Mexicans and non-Western Mexicans." That's an illuminating way of talking about the First World and the Third World, and it manifests itself in the film via aural and visual references to R2D2, Buzz Lightyear, and Spider-Man, and in the palpable and perhaps deserved animus toward Juan that seeps out (sometimes quite subtly) in casual interactions.
The movie turns a few degrees on a shooting that's wisely filmed in a bloodless long shot, almost as a throwaway. After all, we see it coming from a ways off, or more accurately we feel it coming, carried on an undercurrent of male competitiveness and propelled by recurring hints that human civilization is barely advanced from the behavior exhibited by and between animals. Reygadas' characters flatter themselves that they are thinking beings, who name rooms in a French steambath-slash-sex-club after Duchamp and Hegel, but the director suggests we operate on a more primitive level.
That's one way to take the two testosterone-filled rugby scenes, set in England, dropped out of nowhere into the final reel. Indeed, everything in Post Tenebras Lux demands interpretation, and some audiences will be frustrated by a film they deem disjointed. They have a point, although every scene is compelling and the film rivets our attention moment to moment. The director asserts that the film taps into "all levels of perception" including "dreams, things you long for, memories, an imagined future, the conscious present, a reality that is beyond us." The challenge posed to the viewer is to connect the scenes to our own satisfaction.
My reading of the film is that our relationship with nature is perverted and out of whack, and given our selfishness and brutality it's no wonder we have trouble maintaining relationships with other people over a length of time. The movie will no doubt speak to you differently. We can agree, however, that Carlos Reygadas deserves inclusion in the small circle of philosopher-filmmakers.
Co-presented by the Cine+Mas SF Latino Film Festival, Post Tenebras Lux screens at 7:30pm Thursday-Saturday, May 30-June 1, 2013 and at 2:00 and 4:30pm Sunday, June 2, 2013 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. For more information visit ybca.org.