Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I'm way behind #1: Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)

When I decided to start writing about every film I see in a theater, I thought I could stay on top of things. I didn't count on a temporarily inconvenient work schedule and my innate laziness, and now I'm almost three months behind. I plan to rectify the situation with a series I'm calling "I'm way behind."
I may be a misguided fool, but, to me, Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas is an anomaly. He makes films as if the last 35 years of prevailing trends in both mainstream and arthouse cinema never happened, but his films aren't retro-nostalgia throwbacks. They feel very contemporary, but you'd have to go back to people like Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Bresson, "trilogy of faith"-era Bergman, the Herzog of Aguirre, and the Erice of Spirit of the Beehive to find a similar ambition and tone. He makes visionary, emotional epics on an intimate scale with mixed casts of professional and nonprofessional actors in Mexican landscapes and communities free from the usual cinematic cliches of what that country looks like. His films are largely meditative and slowly paced, but they contain outrageous moments of apocalyptic/mystical provocation and psychedelic lunacy, and his approach to sexuality and nudity walks a thin line between matter-of-factness and titillation. His shot composition is remarkably beautiful, with a subtle undercurrent of menace. He's an artist, not an entertainer or commercial huckster, but there is just enough P.T. Barnum in him to make the viewing experience slightly unsettling. 
I have yet to catch up with his first film, Japon, but the two preceding Post Tenebras Lux, Battle in Heaven and his Dreyer homage Silent Light, may be two of my favorite films of the past decade. Silent Light, in particular, gave me a glimpse into a community I'd never known about previously, the white Mennonite settlements in Chihuahua that have existed since the 1920s. The film was the first made in Plautdietsch, the dialect spoken by low-German Mennonites. Those two films were well received by critics, but Post Tenebras Lux is a much more divisive animal. An abstract semi-autobiography of fragmented narrative, Post Tenebras Lux features Reygadas' children playing the lead characters' children, uses Reygadas' house as a primary location, and includes two scenes of English boys playing rugby, which initially baffled me until I read some biographical information about the director and discovered the rugby teams were affiliated with an English boarding school Reygadas attended as a boy. This impressionistic approach to narrative and form has made some critics pull out that old saw of an insult, "self-indulgent," but I think their problem is that Reygadas is not indulging or validating their own laziness, prejudice, and lack of engagement.
The film opens with a virtuosic piece of filmmaking; Reygadas' young daughter Rut wanders unsupervised in a rural, mountainous landscape at dusk while dogs and cattle move about her and a thunderstorm punctuates the enormous sky with yellows and purples and huge claps of percussive sound. The rest of the film can't quite live up to this visual embarrassment of riches (though it comes close), but what other film of the last thirty years could?
The rest of Post Tenebras Lux includes both quiet and fraught domestic moments, an animated devil wandering the home at night, a transformative sexual experience in a French bathhouse, a robbery gone bad, an off-key but emotionally affecting Neil Young cover, a meeting of recovering addicts in a reconfigured shack, reverently mystical shots of the landscape, and the most unexpected sacrificial atonement of sins you'll probably ever see. The film was shot in the rarely used 1:33 aspect ratio that is square instead of rectangular. Reygadas also shoots his exterior scenes with a distortion effect around the edges of the frame that makes the viewer feel as if he's staring through glass. Rather than the pretentious distraction this sounds like on paper, the lens distortion has the effect of making the film seem like a dream or hallucination, as well as setting it apart from conventional filmmaking technique and forcing the viewer to acknowledge it as a piece of art on its own terms, a personal expression from a man with a very particular way of looking at the world. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to see it on a theater screen.

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