To be in the thrall of Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas' beautiful, hypnotic images is to be alive to the decorous, the monstrous and the ridiculous, but also to feel deeply how they might interconnect. Entering the impressionistic hodgepodge that is his latest meditation, "Post Tenebras Lux," which won Reygadas the director prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, moviegoers beholden to clean narrative may feel they need their own explanatory GPS and audio guide. But the richer reward lies in allowing oneself to be led by this gifted director's instinct for lyrical, sensory exploration.
The movie, whose title is a Reformation-era motto meaning "after darkness, light," is itself slapped into existence with a stunning sequence in which a little girl merrily scampers across a puddle-filled soccer pitch in a sweeping valley. She's surrounded by cows, horses, dogs, a darkening sky and a rippled blurring on the edges of the frame, and her childish ecstasy feels ethereally powerful amid the roiling naturescape around her. Never bashful about his bold image-making, Reygadas may not have been able to orchestrate the lightning, but he at least created the child who's front and center — it's his own daughter, Rut.
What follows is a sequence more intimate and disturbing, a nightly call to a sleeping house by a glowing red devil figure carrying a toolbox. Is one a dream and one a nightmare? Reygadas won't explain (and pointedly refuses to in interviews), but as the primary story settles in — focusing on a well-to-do family's move to a mountainside home, surrounded by poor villagers with simmering resentments — the early, head-scratching, seemingly incongruous scenes of abandon and invasion manage to haunt the rest of the picture. Coupled with what the director will cop to, that "Post" is semi-autobiographical, it seems safe to say that he's after something elusive about new domesticity in an anciently picturesque environment.
An immersive artist fascinated by humankind's place in the natural world — be it a suicide-minded traveler revitalized by a peasant grace ("Japon") or a Mennonite farmer's tussle with faith-shaking adultery ("Silent Light") — Reygadas is once again burrowing into the lived-in truth behind moments of simple bliss and aching portent, aided by the entrancing cinematography of Alexis Zabe and the sumptuous sound work of Gilles Laurent. A misty mountainside is disturbed by the sound of chain saws. A quiet family morning is thrown into shock when the father, Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro), brutally punishes one of the local dogs. What appears to be a fast-forward to a boisterous multigenerational reunion is followed by the parents' trip to a sex club in a French bathhouse. In this primal universe, the upsetting always seems around the corner from the Edenic, and vice versa.
There are glimpses of the future, wisps of the past and unanchored interludes, but Reygadas won't keep a steady chronology or point to, well, a point. Only when a fateful turn of events has wife/mom Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) tunelessly warbling Neil Young's "It's a Dream" to her bedridden husband, himself suddenly moved by a dream of childhood in which he saw "how everything is alive, shining, all the time," does the movie even threaten to coalesce its themes into an intimate portrait of the struggle to keep our realities and fantasies on an even keel.
Then again, maybe the interludes of rugby-playing English schoolboys might throw you off completely. You might see Reygadas as merely a painterly noodler, given to pretension (it's true) and willful experimentation (very true). But "Post Tenebras Lux" is that real rarity in cinema, a visually striking archaeology of the psyche that benefits both the moviegoer primed to engage Reygadas' ideas, and the ones open to being swallowed in an art film wave. Because after the darkness of the movie house sets in, believe me, there is a very active, provocative and stunning light.
'Post Tenebras Lux'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: At Cinefamily, with weekend matinees only at Laemmle Noho 7 and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena