A decade ago I stumbled out of an Edinburgh cinema during that city’s inviting and kaleidoscopically diverse film festival (this year’s edition takes place from June 19th-30th), gut-wrenched, stomach-punched, spirit-elevated and, I still believe, changed. I had just seen Japon, the debut feature from Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas. I had followed Japon‘s protagonist through his own existential crisis, wandering back to a mountainside village, preparing to die, experiencing love, and falling into fate. It was one of the most physically imaginative films I’d ever seen; the perfect fusion of music and image, the simplicity of observation, the experience of being provoked to consider my own life paralleled how I’d felt on first seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, I thought I’d found a new favorite director.
I was wrong. After seeing Reygadas’ follow up work – especially Battle in Heaven and his most recent work Post Tenebras Lux – I realize that he’s an example of a magnificent artist, but I can’t make friends with his films. They’re too close for comfort. He wants to show us the world as it is, which for him means eating and sleeping and bleeding and being afraid and making love in a far messier and more revealing way than the gauzy fake romanticism that most movies consider adequate to the task of representing love.
Post Tenebras Lux – about Juan, a privileged architect living in a rural idyll that conceals joyful community, exquisite landscape, and monstrous violence – is so dedicated to fearlessly facing the crisis of uninitiated adults trying to run the world without knowing how to run themselves that watching it is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. But the discomfort arises from within – Proust wrote that readers enjoy novels because we identify with the inner lives of fictional characters: most of us are not Russian aristocracy, but the near impossible choices faced by Anna Karenina can make sense to anyone who has ever tried to figure out what it means to give and receive love. Of course I’m not a Mexican architect living in primal rural beauty, but Post Tenebras Lux took me to a place of uncomfortable self-recognition: of my own anger, selfishness, fear, hope, grief.
This latter is the heart of the film: it’s a lament for the global navel-gazing of the immature soul, a confrontation with what might be called the sins of the fathers, and the mothers, and the children who treat this earth as if it is our property to consume or condemn. I didn’t get this when I saw it – it took a conversation with a friend to illuminate (and for a film whose title means “After Darkness, Light,” illumination is the mot juste) that what I had seen was a work of liturgy, a Good Friday service for believers, agnostics, and atheists alike, the kind of work that should be screened at the beginning of earth summits in hopes that our collective bargaining with impending disaster might give way to a measured recognition (and according reaction) that our lives have become unmanageable. There are, of course, eleven steps after that one, but it’s not Carlos Reygadas’ responsibility to tell us what they are, or to sugar coat his melancholia to help his audience feel better about ourselves.
He has an artistic cousin, I think, in Jeff Nichols, whose Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and current release Mud constitute a trilogy of investigation into the contemporary US American psyche – men in transition, supported (or challenged) by women justly demanding better than laziness or neurosis; facing their surrounding brokenness, trying to do the bets they can with what they’ve got. There is more obvious hope in the films Nichols makes, but it’s the kind that’s earned: his hero’s journeys are, unlike most popular cinematic representations of transformation, actually journeys rather than representations of people treading water, or achieving something without ever doing anything. His protagonists end up somewhere different than where they began, and they suffer in order to get there.
Reygadas’ anti-heroes suffer, and typically die (or kill), and it’s not cathartic, because he’s not interested in living our lives for us. In Reygadas’ films, it’s a threat just to be alive; in the ones Nichols makes, you are allowed a chance to imagine something better, and your weakness may actually become your strength. In Mud, characters observe things, experience fear, but are able to do something about it – one moment, on which the climax turns, has a character who previously has been in hiding (even from himself), acting on impulse to rescue a vulnerable person. The character doesn’t even need to think about it – kindness is a reflex.
There’s not a lot of reflexive kindness in Reygadas’ films – but it’s simplistic to suggest that Reygadas does not care about the people in his work – on the contrary, I think he is concerned about the future of humanity too much to grant easy outs to the people he invents. Reygadas’ people experience the pain of being alive without appearing to know that there are options for change, and that’s only because they are just like and you and me – aware that things aren’t going well, confused about how to fix them; Nichols’ characters act in stumbling, trembling ways, recognizing that safety does not – or at least should not – depend on luck. Both are reaching for the transcendent idea evoked by Viktor Frankl, that giving redemptive meaning to suffering makes it not suffering anymore.
Sometimes each of us gets the chance to experience the kind of suffering that may make life feel as if it is a bad dream dreaming us. The gift of suffering – for Mud, for Juan, for anyone in the world of Carlos Reygadas or Jeff Nichols – is that it can become lament. In that regard, these filmmakers are doing a service to the world, religious or not, for lament has been too often ignored in misguided efforts at making everything “alright.” Lament isn’t the same as depression; and it is indivisible from hope – because it is related to the idea that things as they are, are not as they should be.
“Should be” is a function of hope – and like as in Stanley Kubrick’s assertion that The Shining is an optimistic film because it affirms a belief in the afterlife, “should be” depends on the possibility that things could get better. The catastrophes visited upon (and invited by) the people in the films of Carlos Reygadas, and the fear experienced by those in Jeff Nicholls’ work are experienced as catastrophes and fear partly because we know that things should be different. In that light, Post Tenebras Lux and Mud are invitations not to despair, but to pause, and perhaps to change direction.
Gareth Higgins is a writer and activist from Northern Ireland. He writes regularly on his own blog, God Is Not Elsewhere, co-hosts the award-winning movie podcast, The Film Talk, and is the Executive Director of The Wild Goose Festival.