Thursday, June 06, 2013

New Film: Post Tenebras Lux (2012)

As writer-director Carlos Reygadas and cinematographer Alexis Zabé's camera rotates amid a closely huddled group of adolescent rugby players, in a cryptic coda that comes after a set of narratively circular scenes that echo Post Tenebras Lux's (2012) ambiguous open, the apparatus pauses for what will prove the film's final line reading, "They've got individuals. We've got a team. Let's go!" With this, Reygadas slyly hints at an explanation for his habitual practice of textual reference: as a means for self-identifying as a member of a unified aesthetic faction, a modernist art-film team (or even a global Leftist ethos, in presumed opposition to capitalist American and Hollywood practice).

Reygadas opens Post Tenebras Lux in act of quotation, in a puddle-covered field populated by the rain sodden Sátántangó's (1994) first-scene bovine subjects. (The filmmaker will crystallize his Tarr reference shortly thereafter, naming one of his mangy canines Béla after the shaggy Hungarian master.) Reygadas's 1.33:1 frame is smudged around the edges in what will prove an on-going, expressionistic strategy that at once refers to the work of Aleksandr Sokurov (cf. Mother and Son, 1997), while also separating Post Tenebras Lux from mundane observed reality. The first-act appearance of a glowing digital devil does similar work, even as it brings to mind Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). Post Tenebras Lux's verdant mountain setting equally recalls the great Thai director's Blissfully Yours (2002), in addition to providing a platform for the picture's La Libertad (Lisandro Alonso, 2001) citation - in Seven's (Willebaldo Torres) vocational forest labor. There are also the film's gestures toward earlier masters, be it the rough-hewn rural home that evokes spiritual godfather Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror (1975) or the laboring ass that elicits comparisons to Au hasard Balthazar (1966). Post Tenebras Lux is a work of densest referentiality and of absolute factional fidelity.

Reygadas's Cannes prize-winner - the filmmaker unexpectedly earned the 'best director' prize despite decidedly mixed critical reaction - is no less representative of the filmmaker's idiosyncratic contribution to contemporary film art. To begin with, there is the director's strategy of appropriation, which as the above attests, becomes markedly more diffuse in Post Tenebras Lux - especially in view of the masterful Silent Light's (2007) concentrated response to Ordet (1955). There is also the magisterial narrative circularity of the 2007 feature that the filmmaker renews for his fragmentary latest.  However, it is the graphic sexuality (most associated with the fellatio of Battle of Heaven, 2005) that provides the surest sign of the provocateur's synthetic signature, with the film's housewife lead (Nathalia Acevedo) pleasured by a perverse coterie of sagging, late middle-aged men and women in a French bordello. Contemplative slow cinema with a taste for graphic sex, Reygadas's singular, extreme art incites from both art-film ends.

Of course, it is neither the act of reference nor even the presence of the explicit or abject - the film's rural Mexican location provides an extended site for the latter - that serves as the semi-biographical Post Tenebras Lux's most distinctive feature. Rather it is the film's aggressive obscurity, present in its deeply fragmented and at times a-chronological structure; its surreal fissures and pursuits of fantasies; its adoption of a small child's visual perspective; and most of all, its ubiquitous manipulations of the image surface that mark Post Tenebras Lux as a radical departure for the Reygadas of the long-take, post-Kiarostami Japón (2002), Battle of Heaven and Silent Light. Whether or not this is a welcome shift seems beyond the point for such a singular entry into the contemporary world cinema canon, as does even the question of its respective quality. At this stage, which is to say at the emergence of something new, let us simply say that Post Tenebras Lux heartily deserved its competition slot at Cannes - as the sort of radical work that often finds a place elsewhere, not to mention as a piece of festival-circuit chauvinism - and the attention of all those (however few they may be in number) with a real eagerness for originality.

Post Tenebras Lux will be opening Friday, June 7 at the Sie Film Center in Denver, courtesy of Strand Releasing

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