Carlos Reygadas, Post Tenebras Lux (Light After Darkness), 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 115 minutes. Right: Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo).


AS IN SILENT LIGHT (2007), Carlos Reygadas’s latest film suffuses the bluntness of the everyday with a supernatural air. His characters’ simplest gestures bear a gravity that escapes them while nevertheless molding the patterns that haunt and prescribe their lives. Just as the serenity of the breakfast scene in the previous film is ruptured by the sudden emotional collapse of the father, the idyllic image of children frolicking on the parental bed in Post Tenebras Lux is immediately shattered by the father’s shocking abuse of a family dog.

Both films challenge the notion of the family as a haven in an unfriendly world. But while Silent Light unfolds in an exclusive social community marked by a near-extinct language, Post Tenebras Lux carries the imprint of an increasingly fracturing, indomitable capitalist culture. This is directly reflected in the film’s structure, in which the narrative tracing the fortunes of an upscale Mexican family is frequently broken and displaced by characters and events with only peripheral connections to the primary ones. Allusions to the dubious benefits of globalization abound: Star Wars, Neil Young, and I ♥ NY T-shirts coexist with Internet pornography, AA meetings, the activities of a rugby team, and sex clubs with rooms named after eminent figures like Hegel and Duchamp.

You’d never guess any of this was imminent from the film’s opening sequence, a stunning visual overture in which an angelic child (the director’s daughter), pursued by a handheld camera, cavorts about a preternaturally photographed pastoral landscape amid grazing cows, barking dogs, and running horses. As if prompted by an offscreen deity, she summons the “cast”—those who will flesh out the main story: “Guera” (one of the dogs), “Home,” “Eleazar” (her brother), “Daddy,” “Rut” (herself), and “Mummy.” As dusk approaches, brilliant light clashes with a portentous sky, rain falls, and the image flutters between utter darkness and flashes of lightning, while the film’s title emerges one word at a time.

Reygadas may be only half-kidding in the scene that follows, in which a hoofed, horned, and faceless demon quietly enters the family abode while everyone is asleep, briefly faces the camera, walks down a hallway, exchanges glances with a young boy, then enters a room and closes the door. Offered perhaps to those who need to ascribe a convenient cause to the seemingly arbitrary events that follow, this creature, translucently composed of a pool of red light, satirically invokes that Bresson film in which a character, responding to the question, “Who is responsible for the random ills of civilization?” exclaims, “The devil, probably.”

Reygadas’s taste in mentors is exemplary. If Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) was the unacknowledged inspiration behind Silent Light, Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977) seems to have been on Reygadas’s mind here, as a later scene of trees falling in a forest also suggests. To boot, Bresson’s narrative also splits its focus between the suicidal trajectory of its main character and the indictment of a world bent on destroying its natural resources while offering pathetic cultural compensations.

But the very caricature of Reygadas’s demon—he carries a toolbox and looks a bit like the animated Pink Panther—is flouted by the film’s existential thrust. In the morning, Rut’s cries awaken her family. Her mother Natalia assumes she’s had a nightmare. Could it have been that dreamlike but menace-free opening sequence? Or was it the demon visitation that followed? Reygadas is, like Bresson, fond of ellipses. So after Juan (the father) beats the dog, the film cuts to an AA meeting where Juan is introduced to the members by Seven, an impoverished and pathetic fellow who attributes the loss of his wife and children and his violent behavior to bad upbringing and alcohol. Juan feels that his own sexual frustrations and violent tendencies pale in comparison, but later he asks his wife to help him overcome both. Further on, Seven impulsively shoots Juan in a botched house robbery. Seven’s efforts “to make it right” are foiled by Juan’s death and a second desertion by his family. In the film’s most surreal image, Seven stands forlornly amid a breathtaking landscape and literally tears his head off his body. It’s about as wrenching a picture of crippling, unfathomable despair as any filmmaker has ever captured.

In the film’s longest uninterrupted take, Juan lies ill after being shot and expresses his love of all things. The scene could have been a mawkish betrayal of everything that precedes it, but it comes off as an affecting and earnest directorial statement. Yet, in contrast to the determined suicide in The Devil, Probably, Reygadas does not end his film with Juan’s farewell, nor with Seven’s self-decapitation. Instead, he returns us to the rugby team and offers a third perspective. In the final shot, a young player assures his mates that they will beat their opponents: “They’ve got individuals, we’ve got team.” As he has with every film he’s made thus far, Reygadas gives us contradictory views that echo the mysteries of human existence.

Tony Pipolo

Post Tenebras Lux plays May 1–14 at Film Forum in New York.