Saturday, January 05, 2013

137. Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ film “Post Tenebras Lux “ (After Darkness, Light) (2012): Visually and cerebrally stimulating cinema.

Carlos Reygadas is one of the few exhilarating filmmakers alive and actively making movies.  His films are never easy viewing.  His films’ images and his films’ soundtrack stun your senses with their groundbreaking ability to make you wonder why other filmmakers did not employ those ideas before.  Then he goads the viewer to reflect and figure out how best to solve the puzzle he has presented on screen. Post Tenebras Lux does just that. It can either elicit your boos or it can open the viewer’s mind’s eye wide in awe. The film won the award best director at the Cannes Film Festival 2012  For this critic, the film is the only film made in 2012 to find a slot on his list of all time 100 best films.

If we deconstruct the movie Post Tenebras Lux, the viewer could perhaps begin to appreciate it.

Rut Reygadas as Rut, daughter of Juan

First, the film is not based on any novel or play—it is the original idea of Carlos Reygadas, scriptwriter and director.  Now when a filmmaker makes a film, the choice of the title is crucial as the title reveals the film. The title is a Latin phrase for After Darkness, Light. Where did it come from? It has its origins in the Vulgate version of Book of Job 17:12, a book in the Holy Bible, and the character Job is equally revered by Jews, Muslims (Job is discussed in the Holy Koran) and Christians. Interestingly this phrase was the motto of the Protestant reformation in Europe as it split from the Roman Catholic Church. This phrase was also the state motto of a country, Chile. The theological connection of the title is not accidental if one considers the fact that Reygadas’ previous film was called Silent Light, a subtle and mischievous play on the Christmas carol Silent Night, with the amazing night to dawn sequences that begins and the reverse sequence that ends that film. The choice of the title Post Tenebras Lux gives the viewer adequate clues to understand and appreciate the theological connection to the film, in spite of the absence of conventional religious symbols, such as crosses, churches, prayers, or even a direct mention of God.


The opening sequence of Post Tenebras Lux, is another evocative play on light and darkness that recalls the opening and the end sequences of Reygadas’ earlier work, Silent Light.  One of the cutest toddlers on screen, Rut Reygadas (real-life daughter of the director), is out in an open field talking to pet dogs, horses and cows in twilight as ominous dark clouds gather, thunder booms and lighting strikes, and light fades to embrace darkness. Darkness and light are metaphors of what is to follow in the movie.  If the visual metaphors were to be limited to goodness and evil, Reygadas prods your mind further with the appearance of a computer graphic generated priapic devil glowing red and carrying a mysterious tool box once at the beginning and later towards the end, to underscore the theological element in the movie. The silent devil is observed by the male child, Eleazar, one of the two innocent kids in the movie and very importantly the devil leaves the kids alone—the devil is interested in someone else in the house, the adults.  The children remain uncorrupted by the devil. Eleazar is again the son of the director.

Second, is the film an imaginary one or is it autobiographical?  Much of the film is indeed autobiographical if we pick up the details. The two lovely kids in the film are Reygadas’s own.  The lovely wooden house is again his own dwelling.  According to reports, the shots with the devil were taken in the house the director grew up in and the toolbox carried by the devil belonged to the director’s father. The movie is dedicated to his wife, Natalia López, who is the film’s editor. Interestingly the wife of the protagonist in the film is called Natalia an obvious nod to the director’s real life wife. Finally, Reygadas picks an actress Nathalia Avacedo, with a similar given name. Carlos Reygadas daughter is called Rut and so is the protagonist’s daughter in the film.  The same goes for his son Eleazar. Reygadas has studied in the UK and has played rugby for Mexico’s national rugby team, facts which explain the rugby players speaking English shown twice in the film. Reygadas is apparently closely connected to the Mexican rugby team as well. 

The rugby game

Third, is the film only about two nuclear families? If you look deeper into the film's structure, the differences between the two families underscore the social divide in Mexico today. The obvious focus is on the family of Juan and Natalia, and their two cute kids.  They live in a beautiful upscale wooden house in an idyllic location far from the hustle and bustle of commerce and city/town life but they are serviced by poorer sections of Mexico’s inhabitants. Juan and Natalia could easily pass off as Caucasians but the workers have features that are typically native Mexican. In the middle section of the film, Reygadas introduces the viewers to a range of males who speak to the camera as though they were being interviewed by the director and admit to struggling with their problems including one who is a drunkard who has joined the Alcoholics Anonymous while Juan admits to be addicted to internet pornography. Another interesting male talking to the camera is a key figure named Seven who has installed most of the costly fixtures in Juan’s dream house and is apparently close to his boss, Juan. Much later in the film Reygadas shows two sequences of Seven’s “interactions” with Seven’s own nuclear family. There are vignettes of Juan trying to get closer to his workers’ world when he visits the rural pub, where the drunks reveal more of their lives. The social divide between the rich and the poorer sections of Mexico is amply evident in the film, as is the silent rage of two male individuals coming to terms with their own “dark” lives to find “light’ in different and distinct ways,  according to their financial and social status.  The women in both nuclear families are the ones often abused and forgotten, and yet the women seem to shake off their bonds. Reygadas’s women are not easy to decipher—there is a grandmother who hands out large sums of money to her grandchildren urging them to be “businessmen.”  There are rural women who want trees to be cut down for trivial reasons. Did Natalia leave behind some luggage in the house knowingly? Natalia reveals this after Juan holds her hand in the car and she lovingly strokes Juan’s hand before revealing this fact forcing them to turn back. The nagging doubts for the viewer lead us to the fourth element in the movie.

The fourth way to approach the film is by trying to reason individually what is real and what is an illusion, a dream, or an epiphany in the movie.  Reygadas throws another clue at the viewer: Juan asks his wife Natalia to play some music, specifically the Neil Young song “It’s a dream.” Any other director would have got the song sung professionally—but Reygadas makes the singing deliberately look amateurish. It is not the singing that he wants you to appreciate; it is the relevance of the song. Natalia cries in the process. What then is the dream in the film? The dream of a happy “casa”? Remember young Rut’s few words in the opening sequence, and one of them is “casa” or the Spanish for house. There is a link between generations and the house is a suggested metaphor. Evidently the devil carrying the grandfather’s toolbox is only perceived in the movie by the male grandchild in the casa, no one else.  The devil sees the child but is only interested in the parent’s bedroom.  The woodcutter in the film watches as tall trees fall down in the woods as thought they were falling by themselves. The entire film and the tale of the two nuclear families is from a male standpoint but the women, silent as they seem change the flow of the narrative at decisive moments, leading to downfall/self-realization and eventual mortification of the male head in each of the two nuclear familial units. Is the film made by a male director with no concern for the women? That query seems to be negated by the fact that the director has dedicated the entire film to his real life wife and the film's editor. In fact, the "Duchamp" sequence aids Natalia to transcend inhibitions and realize that she is attractive to men. (One of Duchamp's famous surrealist paintings is called  'The bride stripped bare by bachelors, even'  that could have some relevance to the sequence.)

The ‘trees’ do fall in the Mexican garden of Eden and they fall at random towards the end. Trees have visual and metaphorical importance in Post Tenebras Lux. The surprising request made of the woodcutter to cut down a harmless tree because it bothers some women makes a subtle connection with the viewer. So do the parallels of two Mexican family heads as they return to their individual “casas” imply a more significant action as the men realize their individual follies quite in contrast to their silent but strong wives who take care of the children and prepare the family meals.

Natalia, Rut and Eleazar in their "Garden of Eden"
A fifth way to deconstruct the film is to divide the movie by two obvious sections, and the dissection is made by the camera using the refractive image at the edges in some sequences and not using the unusual magical effect of cinematographer Alexis Zabe  elsewhere.  A close study of the film reveals that the refracted images are used for outdoor sequences and not for indoor sequences. Is Reygadas suggesting that the refracted image of what is done outside is less real than what is within the “casa”? One clue to this is the brutal killing of a pet dog (off-screen) by Juan and the self-repentant statement “I hurt those that I love most. You must help me stop doing this.” or words to that effect. Refracted images are real, it only provides the perceiver an “unreal” view. That this critic believes is the way to approach this work of Reygadas. When the child Eleazar Reygadas playing Eleazar son of Juan states that his father is dead it is a case of refracted reality. Do children lie? Of course, not. At the same time you do not perceive Eleazar as a child who has lost a parent. And it is Eleazar who alone is able to see the visits of the devil.

The devil enters the house/casa

A sixth and a crucial way to figure out Reygadas’ cinema is to accept that he is religious and is consciously adapting bits of the Bible into cinema in a personal way, just as Terence Malick does in his films. The only marked difference between Reygadas and Malick is that Reygadas constantly falls back on the carnal aspects of the human being in every work, a method that Malick studiously avoids. The religious elements in Post Tenebras Lux are never obvious, except for the shots of the devil. The first question for a viewer would be to ask if Reygadas is religious or a person questioning religion.  Reygadas’ own children act in the film with their own given names, Rut (for Ruth) and Eleazar, both names of characters in the Bible.  You do not choose to give such names to your progeny merely because it sounds good—Reygadas, one suspects, has sufficient knowledge of the Bible. If the viewer accepts this pre-condition, several bits of the film become loaded with Biblical parallels. The suicide of Seven in a lonely open field has parallels with the suicide of Judas and the potter’s field, following Seven’s remorse of having killed his master Juan. So does the image of the lonely tree in an idyllic garden of Eden in the Mexican landscape take on added significance, when tree cutter is asked to cut it down illogically for metaphorical reasons. 

This critic went back to the Book of Job 17, from where the title of the film is taken. It is interesting that the chapter after the verse 12 which states that the dejected and lonely Job’s philosophical words “hope is in the world of the dead, where he will lie down to sleep in the dark, and I will call the grave my father, and the worms that eat me, I will call my mother and my sisters. Where is there any hope for me? Who sees any? Hope will not go with me, when I go down to the world of the dead.” These lines from the Bible could explain several aspects of the film, otherwise intriguing. It is Eleazar who sees the devil and who states that his father Juan is dead later to Seven.

Isn’t it an interesting coincidence that both Malick’s Tree of Life and Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, two structurally and thematically close works both indirectly refer to the Book of Job? The only stark difference in the two works is that Tree of Life allows for family viewing, while Post Tenebras Lux is strictly for mature adult viewing, thanks to its few carnal sequences.

This critic would like to refer to Reygadas’ statement made to Anna Bielak in an interview published Slant magazine:  “The film may seem mysterious at first sight. But I really hope that by not giving you any simple answers, you eventually feel how much I respect you as a viewer, how I respect the movie in terms of art, and how much I respect myself as a director. The film is what it is. Talking about it afterward makes me feel dishonest. I demand a lot from the audience and I don’t have any limits, that's true. However, I am a free man, and I may do what I really want. I am giving you the best of myself, and I strongly believe that all around me there are lots of people more sensitive and intelligent than I am. Every single person is different, is focused on other things, feels different emotions, and tries to find their own way through the movie, and is able to find their very own and unique interpretation of the story. One viewer could love the film; the other one, as sensible as anyone else, may hate it for a very good reason. Moreover, I am a viewer as well. I watch lots of movies, and I truly appreciate the directors that don’t try to lead me by the hand through their stories. I want to be considered one of them.”

The importance of trees in the Mexican "Garden of Eden"

Reygadas has stated elsewhere about the film “The whole idea of “light after darkness” seems appealing to me in terms of intimate experience, of being a human living in a Western world. In a sense we all live in the darkness of our daily frustrations. Yet, I hope the light would come after us to enlighten the world for our children.” Reygadas has also stated in another interview that the film Post Tenebras Lux is about Mexico becoming evil and that “the real title of my film should have been 'My country is bleeding. Mexico is bleeding’” The film does appear disconnected but the film can be connected up with a bit of reflection and some effort to pick up the references. Post Tenebras Lux is not easy viewing but complex and personal cinema, rarely encountered, and one of the finest films of 2012.A rugby team appears to be losing, but there is hope for the losing team, if they play as one. The movie telescopes the individual into the refracted reality of the home/casa/family and subsequently the country. Like Job, there is hope if one is resolute in what you believe. So too, for Mexico. So too, for Juan’s children.

P.S. Reygadas's Silent Light (2007) was reviewed earlier on this blog. Post Tenebras Lux figures on the list of the author's best 10 films of 2012.


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Another brilliant analysis, sir... the wait has indeed been worth it. After reading it, I am greatly inspired to watch the movie. But, it might take me some time to locate the movie, this time around. Till then I plan to explore Reygadas' previous films. I was really delighted to hear about your experience at the 17th International Film Festival of Kerala. In fact, I have made a note of your top 10 movies for the year. I will be eagerly awaiting your reviews of the other films that you watched at the festival.

Sam said...

Thanks for this defensive article. Some sections of this analysis actually contribute to reveal some of the hidden connections and context (Third analysis is particularly useful) However, the lack of a cohesive connection between analyses makes the article incomplete (If you need it to be a thorough analysis) and fragmented as the film itself (In regards to the film its not a negative point, but with the article, yes!). The justification of some the scenes in the conclusion seems forced and superficial. It is still unsure if these scenes are really valid as the formal parts of the film. I personally believe this film is somewhat indolent effort artistically, comparing with Bergman's Persona or Tarkovsky's Mirror.

I like to point out a factual error in your article which might helpful in keeping the film in its place and still to be open for more further discusions. The little child who gets to see the 'devil' is obviously not Eleazar as he looks a bit older and different in many ways.

The director himself proves this here.


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