Fernando F. Croce wrote for Mubi recently that Post Tenebras Lux “is a film still locked inside its maker’s head,” and it’s true that much of the meaning or import of the film can only be grasped tenuously and at some remove. That distance will likely be a significant, potentially insurmountable hurdle for many viewers desperate for more overtly explicated or tangible ideas. An impatient audience will assume, perhaps even correctly, that if Carlos Reygadas does indeed intend to illustrate with this film anything like a cogent message or thought, his methods here are frustratingly remote. As with many oblique works, a suggestion hangs in the air that the emperor has no clothes: One worries that not only is Post Tenebras Lux locked inside its maker’s head, but that what remains locked there doesn’t mean much of anything even privately.
It takes a rigorous close read to dispel such concerns—as well as, maybe more importantly, a willingness to defer to Reygadas and accept a certain central abstraction. Doing so reveals a film both rich and strange: It’s haunting, abstract, monolithic, but half-there. It’s a film that yawns and aches. One strains to even describe it: The narrative, such that it is, concerns a wealthy family in a poor neighborhood rent asunder from within and without. Immense social pressure bears down on the film. Class issues course through its veins, informing its drama—even, in a major way, inciting its action. And yet it works in miniature just as often and as poignantly. One of the most compelling images in a film full of major, unforgettable ones is of two hands drawn together in a car, held in tender close-up. It’s also surprisingly personal, or, as some have put it, “private.” Reygadas has described the glowing satanic figure who twice creeps into a family’s home as based on how his father appeared to him in a dream, a contextual footnote that imbues a striking but ambiguous image with something closer to autobiographical import.
The family drama at the center of the film, an oblique story of self-improvement and sexual awakening that at times recalls Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, has a personal dimension that, even if confused through abstraction, is still emotionally coherent, which allows us to make sense of our feelings and, at times, feel quite moved. And so while much of Post Tenebras Lux operates at a seemingly unbridgeable remove, the emotional core of the film is always intelligible; specific images have a symbolic import suspended in ambiguity (I’ve already had much debate about even the intended effect of certain gestures), but in total the film has a transportive effect working above and beyond the details. The brief non-sequitur sequence that closes the film, for instance, seems immense and totalizing even though, frankly, it makes little narrative sense. That’s the kind of unprecedented sidestep that could derail even a largely experimental film, and yet its immediate effect in the film is a resounding success. In short, one never feels that they actually need to know what’s going on at any given moment. Giving yourself over to Reygadas and trusting him to deliver in the end is rewarding even without a clear-cut roadmap.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—16.