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An Impressionist Family Portrait

MOVIE REVIEW
Post Tenebras Lux (2012)

Post-tenebras-lux-movie-review-carlos-reygadas-adolfo-jiménez-castro
56th BFI London Film Festival

Terrence Malick has a lot to answer for. Carlos Reygadas has apparently been the first — although certainly not the last — director to watch “The Tree of Life” and say, “Hey! I also have a biographical story which can make a vague point of the interconnectedness of the world we live in!”

For the first 15 minutes or so of “Post Tenebras Lux,” this is an excellent idea. A toddler makes her way through a muddy field, alone except for some cows and dogs, as night falls and an incredible thunderstorm rolls in. The little girl in her bright coat — with the sky and lightning flashes reflected in the puddles beneath her feet — is as striking as anything world cinema has seen for some time. But this astonishing opening sequence presages two things: an uncomfortable mix of fiction and reality and a disconcerting blend of image and substance.

It’s the loose story of Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) and their day-to-day life with two toddlers in a remote villa in northern Mexico. But the movie jumps around in time, location and sense to little clear purpose. Juan attends the local self-help meetings, which are otherwise populated by working-class alcoholics. At a family Christmas party, the children are in their early teens. Juan beats one of the pet dogs to death. Some English schoolboys get ready for a rugby match. A shining red goat walks on his hind legs down a hallway, carrying a toolbox.

The random slices of life also include an unpleasant discussion between Natalia and Juan, who wants to have sex with her despite her infection. Also, in a Belgian swingers’ club, Juan watches Natalia couple with a complete stranger. It’s about as erotic as the orgy sequence in “Eyes Wide Shut,” but with more naked middle-aged Belgians. Then we’re back to the farmhouse, where the little boy tells his father Spider-Man stories. There is a very vague plot interspersed with the sequences discussed above but that ends by going past ridiculousness into banality.

Alexis Zabe’s cinematography uses a lens that distorts the edges of the images — like a fish-eye camera — which is probably a profound metaphor. It creates a nervy unsettled feeling, which seems to be what Mr. Reygadas is trying to achieve. However, from reading other pieces about the movie, we learn that the house in the film and the toddlers are Reygadas’s own. If “The Tree of Life” was Mr. Malick’s elegy to his idyllic childhood, then “Post Tenebras Lux” is Mr. Reygadas’s celebration of how great his life is now, spiced with his traditional violence to animals, class war and the babies throwing their dirty diapers around.

But without the notes being fed to the press, we wouldn’t know the places or the people to which Mr. Reygadas’s subconscious is referring; and we shouldn't have to read a critical analysis before seeing the movie. It would appear the global success of “Battle in Heaven” and “Silent Light” has gone to his head. And it would have been much more appropriate for him to leave his children and the details of his marital sex life out of it. When the images are spectacular, a lot can be forgiven; but mostly “Post Tenebras Lux” is like being trapped in Mr. Reygadas’s dream diary. The only enlightenment we can find there is about his appetite for self-indulgence.

POST TENEBRAS LUX

Opens on March 22, 2013 in Britain and on April 30, 2013 in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Carlos Reygadas; director of photography, Alexis Zabe; edited by Natalia Lopéz; production design by Gerardo Tagle; produced by Jaime Romandía and Mr. Reygadas; released by Independent Cinema Office (Britain) and Strand Releasing (United States). In Spanish, English and French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. This film is rated 18 by B.B.F.C. and not rated by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Adolfo Jiménez Castro (Juan), Nathalia Acevedo (Natalia), Willebaldo Torres (Seven), Rut Reygadas (Rut) and Eleazar Reygadas (Eleazar).

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