It’s easy to feel crushingly demotivated as 2021 begins, especially here in the UK, where COVID cases are at an all-time high, most of us are in a kind of faulty lockdown and the actualisation of Brexit feels like the beginning of a years-long winter, Westeros-style. Happy New Year indeed. To try and reignite a flame inside myself, I’ve decided to open the year by looking at one of the best beginnings; a self-centred attempt to jump-start my enthusiasm for writing about film while a majority of our cinemas are shuttered once again.
I reviewed Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux back in the spring of 2013 when I first came into contact with it, fortunate enough to see it on the big screen thanks to Picturehouse’s Discover Tuesday strand. It remains one of the most indelible movie-going experiences of my life; to see something so completely It’s Own Thing in the space it was truly designed for. This film, from Mexico, might be lazily labelled surrealist. It has a dreamy, disparate feel, sure. It’s as much about mood as narrative. It tells a story, but its also about economics and human weakness. It’s challenging, startling and almost always beautiful, albeit unconventionally. At its best, it feels like an unfiltered projection of consciousness. So not dream cinema, but think cinema. A visual representation of thinking.
And it has my favourite beginning of any movie I can think of.
We’re in a field – a sports pitch, at one time – and the field is surrounded by mountains. It’s a kind of paradise scene. Reygadas’s own daughter Rut, a toddler, is running around in her wellies. The ground is wet and muddy from recent rain. There are animals all around her. Dogs and cows, mainly, but midway through the scene a team of horses run through in the peripheries (cutely, she misnames them as “donkeys”).
But the girl does apply language to the things around her. She uses her furtive language to define them. Dogs. Cows. Horses. She calls for her mother and father. As she does these things, a storm builds. A real storm. Not one manufactured through special effects. It’s dusk and the light starts fading. We don’t see anyone else so there’s a sense of worry in the scene. Why is she alone? Won’t somebody come to take care of her? And all the while the ambient sounds of the animals, her feet sloshing and the gathering storm. A palpable sense of something beginning.
The way this is shot is remarkable. In this scene – and throughout Post Tenebras Lux – the 1.37:1 frame has a distorting effect applied around the edges. Not quite a fish-eye lens, but a kind of glass ripple that blurs out the peripheries. It’s quite beautiful and gives the feeling that we’re looking at everything through the bottom of a glass. It makes the camera feel a little more like an eye. The dexterous camerawork from DP Alexis Zabe is a wonder. Young Rut Reygadas is filmed handheld, the camera moving at her height, in her world. It isn’t shaky; Zabe’s camera glides. It wanders like a turning head. Rut runs in circles and the scene is cut to feel like a collage, but the sky shows us a consistent timeline. It gets darker and darker as the thunder starts to rumble until, finally, we’re plunged into darkness. Rut continues to call out. We can’t see her. And then she is haloed in lightning. Reygadas has the film’s title (translation: “After Darkness Light”) incrementally appear and the feeling is positively electric.
Following this, as a kind of addendum leading us into the body of the film, is one of the most curious sequences in the film. Following a pregnant pause and with a gorgeously measured sonic overlap, we arrive in a dimly lit home. It’s night. The family are all in bed. The front door opens and a garish red light floods into the space. Its emanating from a devil carrying a toolbox. The devil walks slowly through the house and checks in on a young boy awake in his bed.
Who is this devil, and what does he symbolise? The toolbox seems key, casting him (for he certainly has the plumbing) as a traditional father figure or breadwinner, coming home after a long day. Is Reygadas projecting his own feelings of masculine toxicity here? His anxieties as a father? Is the devil our own/his innate, corrupted brutishness? This is certainly a theme going forward in the film, which in the main focuses on a family weathering the storm of a father’s ill temper. Or is it more closely linked to the scene that came before it?
In both of these deeply atmospheric scenes, Reygadas is showing us children being exposed to things. Rut left alone to fend for herself during a storm; the boy seeing a devil in a father figure. Both are conceptualising. Rut is giving animals names; the storm coming is like her future, and the changes that come with language and limiting things through definition. The boy is understanding a concept, too. The concept of evil, or inherent darkness. In a way, they’re both scenes about how we lose innocence. The brevity and preciousness of being a child and our fledgling encounters with danger.
It’s a bracing, utterly bewitching opening 10 minutes, and one might argue its a magic the film never quite recaptures (though the remainder is well worth your time and undivided attention). In fact there are many, many more moments of wonder, conflict and subtly psychedelic revelation in the two hours that follow, including a self-beheading followed by rainbow rainstorm that I’d honestly rather not have explained, either for its allegorical strengths or on the level of how it was technically achieved – it’s a perfect enigma all on its own.
But sometimes I just watch the opening 10 minutes. There’s not a lot of films where I’d do that. Usually if I’m in, I’m in. But the beginning of Post Tenebras Lux has a transcendent quality. It alters my mood, changes my heart rate – quickening then calming it. It’s especially good right before sleep, as it encourages the mind to wander strange avenues and open the gates to dreams. Think cinema.
Here’s to the year ahead.