Cattle low and trot aimlessly across the floor of some muddy mountain valley as the sun sinks behind the peaks. A little blond girl laughs and calls out random names as the cattle are joined by horses and a pack of dogs, all coursing agitatedly across the sopping turf of what turns out to be a sports field. Clearly something's not quite right, something's making the animals restless, but the little girl seems nonplussed, even as the sun disappears and the only illumination comes from the occasional distant lightning limning her silhouette.
Much of what follows the indelible opening scene of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' new film, Post Tenebras Lux, echoes its overall feel: striking, ominous, dreamlike, disconnected, inscrutable. There is something of an externalized plot here-a tale of tensions between affluent Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and El Siete (Willebaldo Torres), the poor local who does odd jobs for the urbanite at his country home-but a simple summary of what happens would seem to miss the point. How to factor in an extended scene in which Juan and his wife, Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), visit a grotty health/swingers club with rooms named after Hegel and Duchamp for a public mass tryst both tawdry and, ultimately, beatific? Or the scene in which Juan pummels the family dog at length, the blows landing just off camera and raising ghastly animal screams? Or scenes that follow a rugby match between various English-speaking youths on another muddy field, seemingly a continent away from the other events? Or the glowing red animated demon that stalks through a pair of scenes?
Reportedly, Reygadas played rugby during a stint in England. And the director uses his own house in the Mexican countryside to stand in for Juan's, and his own young children play Juan's for part of the film as well. Reygadas' previous films, especially 2005's Battle in Heaven, similarly pursued a very personal, internalized filmmaking language, and how well you connect with this film as a whole is likely to hinge on how much you feel like extending yourself-well past halfway, to be sure. But doubtless, because of the undefined personal connection, many of Post Tenebras Lux's uncanny individual moments are as powerful and confounding as anything else you're likely to see this year.
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