Along with Bela Tarr and Terrence Malick, Carlos Reygadas is one of today’s few genuinely religious filmmakers. He combines the former’s knack for despair, transgression, and doom with the latter’s quest for transcendence, and draws on the oneiric sensibility of both. His new film might be called “Tree of Strife.”
True, religion might not be the first thing that comes to mind after, say, watching the prolonged and miserable sex act that opens Reygadas’s transgressive 2005 film, “Battle in Heaven.” And in “Post Tenebras Lux” (the title is Latin for “After Darkness, Light”) Reygadas also gives the devil his due. In fact, Satan is in one of the film’s very first scenes, and he’s just as you might imagine him: glowing red, with cloven hooves, goatish horns, and a pointy tail, strolling past a child’s bedroom carrying a toolbox. Both absurd and quite at home, he’s a cross between the faun in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and the demon in “Hellboy.”
The child is Eleazar (played by the director’s son of the same name); and despite this diabolical visitation, his seems a model family. He and his sister Rut (played the director’s daughter Rut) romp as their mom, Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), makes breakfast and their jovial dad, Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro), goes out to play with the dogs (also the director’s) — and then nearly beats one to death. OK, so he’s not perfect. But he seems like a saint compared to some of the other characters. His hired hand, Seven (Willebaldo Torres), for instance. After listening to Seven at a 12-step meeting talk about drunkenness, incest, abandonment, drugs, and domestic violence, Juan is embarrassed to confess his own addiction: online porn.
Seven (other characters have names like Toad and R2D2) serves as a low-rent counterpart to Juan, and in the midst of all the cryptic craziness Reygadas weaves a critique of class conflict. Intercut with scenes from the privileged, sometimes decadent lifestyle of Juan’s family are visits to his poor and desperate neighbors. In one wry episode a raffish pair play chess while outside another equally disenfranchised buddy discusses how barter will be the future of economic relationships. These scenes have a palpable, almost redolent, documentary realism, intensifying the flights of fancy. But whether high or low, Reygadas does not pass judgment on any of his characters, nor does he sentimentalize them.
His ambitions, though, are more metaphysical than dialectical. He blurs the border between dream, memory, fantasy, and reality with a hopscotch chronology. Employing an optical effect that resembles 3-D without the glasses, he transforms both ordinary and extraordinary moments into scenes from a fairy tale. These techniques allow him to range from the “Duchamp Room” in a “Fellini Satyricon”-like brothel, to British schoolboys in a rugby scrum, to a guy in a field who rips off his own head, all the while sustaining a mood of immanent revelation. In a key scene Natalya sings what might be the worst cover of a Neil Young song in movies; like the film itself, it is terrible and beautiful at the same time.