Carlos Reygadas' head-spinning follow-up to "Silent Light" (2007) opens as that film did, with a gorgeous image of the natural world. This one depicts a young girl running in a rain-soaked open field, among dogs, horses, burros, the clank of the cowbells accompanying her squeals of delight.
The director's own children portray the young kids in the film, and Reygadas' rural estate becomes the home of the characters. Visually he takes a bold step in this opening and continues it throughout the dreamlike sequence of events to come. As the little girl runs, the screen remains in focus in the middle but blurry, even double, around the perimeter, as if we're watching "Post Tenebras Lux" (or, "Light After Darkness") through a peculiar sort of telescope.
Here's some of what happens, in a tale that is more daydream (often gorgeous, often disturbing, often both) than linear narrative. Wealthy city-dweller Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) and his wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) have moved to a remote corner of Mexico with their children. Something is amiss within Juan, the uneasy patriarch: In an early scene that threw last year's Cannes Film Festival audience straight out of the picture, at least temporarily, he beats a puppy nearly to death over some minor infraction.
Later, we see Juan as a reluctant guest at a local AA meeting, though he doesn't bring up his rage control issues. He's addicted to online porn, we learn in passing. In "Post Tenebras Lux" brute animal urges threaten the stability of life itself, in a variety of ways. Do the children know something is rotten at the core of their parents' marriage?
Reygadas may be playing around with the time frame and the chronology in ways I haven't quite mastered, even after a third viewing. Some of the chapters are frank and harsh: Juan and Natalia, who have money but zero apparent emotional connection, seek an answer, or some shock to their benumbed systems, on a vacation spent in a European sex club. The movie's incidents include an interrupted home burglary and an astounding capper: one character's self-decapitation, which is both comic and horrifying.
At Cannes "Post Tenebras Lux" provoked boos but went on to win the best director prize. Rightly so. It doesn't all work. Some of it dog-paddles around the central themes. There are times when you wish Reygadas would tie his central characters' dilemmas more directly to his enraptured evocations of the ocean, the trees, his children and the animal world.
If Juan, in any way, is Reygadas' nightmare vision of himself and his own darkest fears, his sense of his own place in the country and the countryside he calls home, it's a brave and provocative creative act, no matter how much or how little autobiography may be rolling around in the film's subconscious. Twice, the devil himself, carrying a toolbox, shows up in "Post Tenebras Lux." We can blame whom we like about the harm we commit to one another, and to the world around us.
'Post Tenebras Lux' -- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating (explicit nudity, violence, language)
Running time: 1:55; in Spanish, English and French with English subtitles.
Opens: Plays Friday-Thursday at the Siskel Film Center.