After beginning his career with the art-damaged, sex-and-death duo of Japon and Battle in Heaven — two difficult, provocative and at times willfully obscure curiosities — the gifted Mexican director Carlos Reygadas had a breakthrough with 2007's Silent Light, a quietly astonishing domestic drama about a Mennonite family under duress. Without losing his flair for visual poetry — the opening shot, an unbroken sunrise over the countryside, is a masterpiece in itself — Reygadas engaged with the austere, timeless rituals of his subjects' daily lives while finding pockets of extraordinary beauty and a moment of transcendence on loan from Carl Dreyer's classic Ordet.
With Post Tenebras Lux, his fourth feature, Reygadas splits the difference between his first two efforts and that gorgeously restrained third: Once again, he details a faltering marriage with as much directness as he can muster, but his taste for elusive symbols and non sequiturs returns with a vengeance, and it can be hard to discern how some elements relate to the others.
Here's a film largely set in rural Mexico, for instance, yet there are two scenes that cut away randomly to an English rugby team preparing for scrimmage. The semiotics are hard to explain — and perhaps they carry a personal meaning for Reygadas that he's content not to share with the audience — but the startling majesty of his image-making mostly serves as its own justification.
It doesn't get better than the opening sequence, which seems out to top the one in Silent Light. A little girl (Rut Reygadas, the director's daughter) wanders out into a rain-saturated field as cows, horses and dogs race in circles around her, the day turning to a red-streaked dusk as a violent thunderstorm lights up the night sky.
Reygadas follows up that sequence with a much stranger one in which a devil, appearing as a faceless, illuminated, red-glowing CGI figure, stalks through an apartment as a family sleeps, carrying a toolbox that's presumably filled with bad tidings. Again, what the first scene has to do with the second isn't immediately clear, but together they establish a feeling of dislocation and ill fortune that carries over into the rest of the film.
The little girl resurfaces as the youngest of two small children (Eleazar Reygadas plays her slightly older brother) adjusting to country life. Their parents, Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) and Nathalia (Nathalia Acevedo), are wealthy enough to afford a lovely home, but they're having trouble filling it with happiness.
Their status also stokes class resentment among the impoverished locals, who treat the newcomers with mounting suspicion and hostility. The sour mood seems to affect Juan, too, as he lashes out in violent outbursts, first against one of his dogs and later against his wife. A third conflict, with thieves, proves fateful.
In Post Tenebras Lux (Latin translation: "After darkness, light"), the family drama provides a crucial ballast for a film that swirls with impressionistic touches; it helps Reygadas hold his strange discordant notes mostly in balance. Mostly, but not entirely: It's as if Reygadas started with a sprawling cache of visual ideas and then tried to find some way to organize them all.
The effect can be frustrating at times, but also surprising and beguiling. It isn't often that a glowing red devil turns up in a film so awed by the natural world, and moments like a tender, heart-catching performance of Neil Young's "It's a Dream" save the central domestic crisis from wallowing in misery. Even detractors — and there were many at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was booed lustily (while also picking up the Best Director prize) — would have to admit they couldn't predict what would happen next.