Film Review: Post Tenebras Lux

Acclaimed Mexican <i>auteur</i>'s self-indulgent exercise in exquisite pseudo-profundity commits hara-kiri on his own reputation.

Despite its Latin title—which translates as "After Darkness, Light"—illumination proves maddeningly elusive in Post Tenebras Lux, the fourth feature by Mexico's leading younger auteur, Carlos Reygadas. The global reputation and art-house fan base the 40-year-old writer-director has steadily built with award-winners Japon (2002), Battle In Heaven (2005) and Silent Light (2007) will be eroded rather than boosted by this offensively self-indulgent cubist folly.

Early signs are deceptively promising, as in a lengthy opening pre-credits sequence we observe—courtesy of a high-def digital camera's slightly distorted, kaleidoscope-like lens—a young girl (Reygadas' daughter Rut) happily wandering around a waterlogged rural soccer pitch at dusk with various animals for company: Cows and dogs splash through the rain-drenched field as night falls and lightning cracks across the vast sky.

The first sign of the weirdness to come arrives in the second sequence, in which an incandescent red devil-like entity is shown silently prowling around a house carrying a workman's toolbox. Gradually—very gradually—elements of narrative slide into place, most of them revolving around Rut's fictional dad Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and his wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo).

They're an affluent—though evidently somewhat troubled—couple in their late 30s, residing in a majestic cabin-like villa in a remote Mexican backwater. In one of his first scenes, Juan is shown viciously beating one of his pet dogs—a vile display of temper which makes it very difficult to feel any sympathy for this brute during the remaining course of the film. That's something of a problem, as Juan is the closest thing Post Tenebras Lux has to a protagonist. One of his hapless employees, an easygoing laborer nicknamed “Seven” (Willebaldo Torres), does emerge as a relatively significant narrative focus in the second half. This follows an episode of criminal violence some 80 minutes in—a rare plot pivot in what's otherwise a deliberately disjointed puzzle of scenes whose chronology, and ultimate meaning, are teasingly obscure.

If these had built towards some kind of satisfying emotional or intellectual finale, Reygadas' audacious artistic gamble might conceivably have paid off. Instead, the multi-episode climax—which features a repetition of the red-devil sequence, and by context a possible explanation for this diabolical visit—is so histrionic, ludicrous and (complete with a U.K.-set rugby-field coda) arbitrary that it makes the whole picture in retrospect appear like one long, not very amusing cosmic joke.

There's no denying that Reygadas has talent: His films feature some exquisite elements, and are often visually stunning as showcases for cinematographer Alexis Zabé, who worked genuine magic on Silent Light. But even Zabé struggles to transcend the limitations imposed by Reygadas' distractingly blur-edged digital kaleido-cam here, plus his decision to opt for the boxy Academy ratio. And in any case, pretty pictures alone do not in themselves great cinema make—not for the first time, Reygadas' waywardly willful approach to screenwriting and structure severely outweighs whatever fleeting pleasures his movies may impart.

Suspicions that the critically lauded, award-laden Mexican is, in artistic terms, an emperor clad in exquisitely invisible garments will only crystallize further thanks to Post Tenebras Lux—which at its worst exudes the sort of smug pretentiousness that gives art cinema a bad name in many quarters. Apart from all but the most rarefied coterie, the ticket-buying public is likely to dismiss it as a waste of time—or, as Reygadas might put it, temporis iactura.
The Hollywood Reporter