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The Devil in the details

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By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

ANG PANAHON ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil) is a musical, the way the pasyon (passion play) may be broadly and loosely defined as a musical. There are 33 songs, of varied forms, uneven musicality and occasionally strained rhymes, all of them written and arranged by the director Lav Diaz. The incantatory refrains are mesmerizing and primal as katutubo (indigenous persons) chants, especially as rendered by the Kwentista (Bituin Escalante as the Narrator, a sort of omniscient muse). Amazingly, these musical sequences are one-take wonders, performed without any instrumental accompaniment.

One does not go to a Lav Diaz film to be entertained. His form of slow cinema is not easy, and that is not simply due to the number of minutes that one must sit through — 234 for Halimaw. The deliberateness of each carefully framed shot is like a necessary step in a solemn religious ritual. The scenes progress in the measured meanderings of thought. It is a journey of happenstance taken through dreamtime: backwards, forwards, and even sideways. There are idyllic scenes of a young boy playing with paper airplanes in a sylvan clearing. Then a dark cowled figure with an Heironymous Bosch-like mask intrudes. The same mysterious figure appears at a burgis (bourgeoisie) cocktail party where the Kwentista sings plaintively of love and loss with her eyes closed. The guests all wear blindfolds, unable to see the monsters in their midst. Only the poet Hugo Haniway (Piolo Pascual) has his eyes wide open.

The film opens like the Book of Job, with two demoniacal tempters: the bull dyke Tenyente (Hazel Orencio) and the facially deformed Ahas (Joel Saracho) plotting the destruction and perversion of everything that good common country people hold dear. Diaz has a predilection for endowing his characters with disabilities, as seen in Mula sa Kung Ano Ang Noon (2014) where Joselina (Karenina Haniel) has severe cerebral palsy, cognitive delays, and was painfully mute. The preponderance of disabilities was especially evident in Ang Babaeng Humayo (2016) where the JLC character Hollanda is epileptic, the Magbabalut (Nonie Buencamino) is a hunchback, and even the carinderia (small eatery) owner is crippled by polio.

In Halimaw, the local warlord, Chairman Narciso (Noel Sto. Domingo) is Janus-faced. It is unclear what he is chairman of. He is otherwise nondescript but on the back of his head is the incongruously benign and placid countenance of a bespectacled professorial or intellectual type, with eyes perpetually shut. Might this symbolize the apathetic and willfully blind or sleeping intelligentsia — the career civil servants, professionals, academicians, and artists who by looking the other way, have enabled the monster to thrive? The buzz is that the “devil” referenced by the movie title is a current political potentate who will not be named. The rise of the Civilian Home Defense Forces (CHDF) is mentioned at the start of the film. The events depicted are based upon real-life terrors and depredations wreaked by the CHDF upon the defenseless and voiceless peasants in their obscure and far-flung domains. Although the setting is supposed to be 1979, the identifiable marks of contemporary EJK are evident: corpses mummified with packing tape and crude signs exhorting any witnesses not to take the victims as role models.

The Chairman spouts virulent gibberish. The cadences of his insanely nonsensical tirades are recognizable. Upon the orders of this “drugged demagogue,” as the poet Hugo Haniway calls him, his flunkies topple over an obelisk-like monument, shattering the hero it once upheld. As in other Diaz films, Halimaw is set in a mythically remote Philippine village, here known as Ginto (Gold) which could be anywhere and nowhere. Diaz’s rural folk are sympathetically portrayed with soulful authenticity.

Aling Sinta (Pinky Amador) is the archetypal mother and widow whose son and husband have both been murdered by the CHDF. Many of those bereaved and left-behind by EJKs are women. Destitute and driven mad by the loss of her menfolk, Aling Sinta is also the kwago (owl): she knows what she knows, but hers is a lonely voice incoherently crying in the wilderness. The Paham (Bart Guingona as the Sage) speaks with wisdom, and resists as best he can, but he is permanently silenced as well.

The poet Hugo Haniway himself is dismayingly distant and apathetic when his courageous and generous wife, Lorena (Shaina Magdayao), a selfless doctor, hies off to Ginto to serve the poor. Her name, “Lorena,” might be a nod towards Lorena Barros, an iconic early martyr of Marcos martial law. Hugo doesn’t help his wife to get settled in Ginto. He does give her a formal typewritten note warning her of the danger she might be getting herself into. Neither does he visit her though she poignantly writes him that she misses him and longs for him.

When Lorena stops writing, Hugo does not spring into action to find out what has become of her. Instead, he falls into a deep drunkenly destructive depression. A real poet who was in the audience during the Philippine premiere was disturbed by what he considered an unjust cinematic portrayal of a poet. After all, Jose Ma. Sison, the founder of the CCP, the longest-running communist insurgency, was himself a poet. Hugo even has time to have another love affair with Angel Aquino before he finally goes to Ginto to look for Lorena. It is too-late the hero in more ways than one. Another audience member asked during the Q&A whether the Tenyente’s mocking Hugo’s poetry as irrelevant because the Filipino masses are too ignorant (bobo) to ever appreciate this, was a valid critique. What happens when the poet gets a gun? That is the question that Halimaw leaves us with.