Arts & Leisure

By Noel Vera

Night of the living dead

Posted on March 23, 2016

Movie Review
Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis
Lav Diaz

LAV DIAZ’s Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan is arguably Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, into which is woven select threads of recent Filipino history; his latest, Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery), is for all intents and purposes a conflation of Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo with the 1896 Filipino Revolution. And, of course since Dostoevsky is a far more famous writer (with a far tonier literary cachet) than Rizal ever was outside of the Philippines, and Marcos a more recent (and hence easier to recall) historical phenomenon than Spain’s colonial influence, critics I suppose have decided to instigate a backlash on the filmmaker, and written their articles accordingly.

Some of the more common complaints: it is long and self-indulgent; its period detail is full of inaccuracies; it lacks the humor of earlier Diaz; it is dialog-heavy, especially during the first three hours, with much of the dialog devoted to explaining obscure bits of Philippine history, presumably for the foreign festival viewer.

The nature of the first charge is puzzling; far as I can see nearly all of Lav’s later films are self-indulgently long. He’s managed to make a film justify its extra length maybe twice: with the five-hour Batang West Side, and with the almost compact four-hour Norte; otherwise his ambition has consistently outpaced his abilities and I submit that’s part of his appeal -- that he’s constantly overreaching, trying for something few have done before. I’ve heard Lav’s equally long Melancholia mentioned at least twice as being better (hence absolving the reviewer of the charge of being anti-length); why that film and not this? Why not Heremias, which clicks in at nine hours, or Ebolusyon at 11? Would they have been happier if this was an exact copy of Melancholia, with a dash of contemporary politics to make it go down easier?

The second accusation is harder to refute: incandescent lights, an aluminum tripod, printed shirts impossible for that time period (though printed textiles have been around since the 12th century). It’s also not a little nitpicky (was Godard held accountable for the off-the-rack look of Emily Bronte’s and Saint-Just’s costumes in Weekend?).

Lack of humor is perhaps the most mystifying charge of all. Quiroga’s women (the gloriously chichi Melo Esguerra, Bianca Balbuena, Moira Lee) walking down a street with kaftans billowing a mile behind them; Simoun (Piolo Pascual) and the Kapitan Heneral (Bart Guingona) kibitzing over a pipe of opium, lobbing insults at each other; a tikbalang (a mythical horse-like creature, played by Bernardo Bernardo) leading his charges on a manhunt, uselessly circling a tree. From where I sat there’s plenty funny in this film; was Lav meant to tailor the humor somehow -- simplify it, make it more palatable -- to foreign critics?

As for dialog -- a Lav Diaz character is rarely if ever silent (Florentina Hubaldo and Heremias being the rare exceptions); if you talk to the filmmaker himself he’s an erudite, eloquent raconteur. Admittedly any attempt to write dialog with a period flavor -- particularly the florid style of expression of the colonial period Filipino -- is going to end up clumsy at best (Eddie Romero managed it, his witticisms somehow smoothly translated to Filipino; can’t think of anyone else). Admittedly there’s an overwhelming amount of context to deliver to the audience, even to the Filipino viewer casually familiar with the story of both the revolt and Rizal’s novel; Lav delivers the material as quickly and as directly, if not always successfully, as he can, on the budget he’s allowed (roughly P12 million or $258,000 -- which is large for a Diaz production, but would barely pay the catering cost of a Hollywood production). Does the pace pick up only after the third hour? I submit it picks up after the second, with the first appearance of the tikbalangs, and doesn’t really slow down thereafter -- that Lav does know what he’s doing (more or less) and we’re just impatient with this umpteenth attempt at attention span-stretching (an alternative, as Lav has repeatedly put it, to the standard-issue consumer-friendly 120-minute movie).

It’s beautifully shot, in old-fashioned 4:3 ratio (the as film scholar David Bordwell puts it “body-friendly, human-sized” ratio), with noirish/German Expressionist lighting, easily the best-looking film the filmmaker has done to date. Diaz (with Larry Manda as cinematographer) streams in light from different corners of the screen to pool in dark corners; he aims spotlights straight at the camera, illuminating half a face while plunging the other in shadow. Shooting in Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar (a resort of old houses transferred brick by brick from their original locations) in Bagac, Bataan, he manages to evoke everything from Parisian insouciance (the low sweeping bridges -- with a well-endowed stone horse standing on its hind legs!) to Venetian decay (the shallow canals), only set in 19th century Colonial Manila, the eerie emptiness of the cobblestone streets reminding one of the deserted dystopian-future Manila Lav once proposed in Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (2002).

Lav describes the film as following four narrative strands; I prefer to see the film as three layers, one encapsulating the other. The first and inmost is Gregoria de Jesus’s (Hazel Orencio) search for her revolutionary husband Andres Bonifacio’s body; the second involves Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz) and Simoun’s (Paolo Pascual) odyssey into the Filipino forest; the last has three tikbalangs (Bernardo Bernardo, Cherie Gil, Angel Aquino) involved in a plot to hide (and later recover) the legendary Bernardo Carpio. Where Gregoria focuses on her search (with a laser intensity bordering on the insane), Isagani and Simoun -- aware of the near-failure of Bonifacio’s revolt -- keep constant tabs and occasionally comment on its progress. The tikbalangs of course stand above it all, chortling and neighing at the foolishness of these mortals.

(Strangely the fictional characters are aware of the historical and not the other way around; you imagine the based-on-real-life folks would have read Rizal’s books. Possibly Diaz didn’t want to stray too far off the historical record; or possibly he conceived of the fictional characters as transitional figures, with a foot in the real world, another in the metaphysical).

The characters are incurable storytellers; they insist on place, names, dates (Hule -- Susan Africa -- at one point repeats the date Oct. 31, 1896 twice, this being the day her people in Nasugbu, Batangas were massacred; at another point a farmer tells of an amulet he bought, meant to protect him from bullets -- when his friends rose to face the Spaniards, they’re “shot to death like chickens”). Diaz’s characters are also Dostoevskeian in that they constantly expound and debate and try to make sense of the tumultuous events swirling about them (it helps to have either alcohol or opium at hand -- Diaz’s [if not necessarily Dostoevsky’s] people are funnier and more loquacious when they’re high). 

At one point Simoun and Isagani fall into debate. Poet Isagani belittles art’s usefulness; Mephistophelean Simoun -- the last person you’d imagine capable of appreciating culture -- chides him for being hasty. Artist versus anarchist, virtuous versus villain; critics have cited this passage as being an especially hoary discussion on the relevance of art.

The occasions when their storylines cross (in the beginning, when Rizal’s execution sparks the revolution and drives Isagani’s best friend Basilio [Sid Lucero] to seek out and assassinate Simoun; in the middle when a farmer tells Isagani “I saw Bonifacio killed;” and near the end when all the characters gather for a dreamlike/nightmare feast thrown by the Colorum sect [a sect that believes Rizal will rise from the dead, and Bernardo Carpio returns to crush the Spanish invaders]) -- at these junctures Diaz shows us how history intermingles with mythology, bleeds into the other (Rizal -- writer, polymath, intellectual provocateur -- becomes the promised Christ; Simoun is the inspiration for Bonifacio’s revolution, is Rizal’s darker more violent side -- perhaps Lav’s as well), and how all this arise from the impulse to tell stories (even the tikbalangs have their own fictions to tell).

Lav takes a page from Mario O’Hara’s Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000) to show us how mythologies arise from and are a manifestation of our darkest impulses; he takes a page from O’Hara’s Sisa (1999) to suggest that where historical record or fiction fall short imagination might carry the day -- giving us for example the confrontation between Gregoria de Jesus and Cesaria Bellarmino (Alessandra de Rossi) we Filipinos (the historically aware anyway) have so long craved, or the possible remission of sin Isagani might conceivably grant Simoun. Leaving Las Casas Filipinas for the dark majesty of the Filipino forest, Lav has his characters lose themselves in the Gustave Dore thickets of their own subconscious, where they either flounder helplessly or somehow dredge up a resolution to their various narratives.

And they do (skip to the last paragraph if you wish to see the film!). Gregoria realizes who stands before her: the woman who precipitated her husband’s defeat and probable death, and her own reported rape. What follows is almost archetypally Filipino -- our baser passions (fear, anger, hate) prove all-consuming but so do our higher ones (love, forgiveness), and we act accordingly. Later when Simoun (who in the latter half of the film seems to assume the role of Caliban-sorcerer, crippled and forced into self-reflection) raises the topic of his many sins, Isagani is less forgiving; he admits his anger against Simoun can’t be easily swayed. Then Simoun tells a story, of a blind girl once taught by Isagani to recite Rizal’s last poem, and moved by the memory starts reciting the poem itself.

It’s a lovely moment; Pascual recites with fervor in the original Spanish (strange that critics are more forgiving of spoken poetry in, say, Pedro Costa’s films). Then -- and this may have been lost on folks who had to rely on English subtitles -- Isagani continues the poem in Filipino. He has, in effect, used his skill in the language to translate the poem from the colonialist’s tongue to the colonized -- brought the poem home to the people it was meant for. After a while, Simoun continues and finishes the poem in Spanish.

This I submit is a failure in translation, an unintended omission of a dramatic high point in the film (a high point that, incidentally, redeems the above mentioned “hoary discussion”). In the midst of the Katipunan’s defeat, while Gregoria searches futilely for her husband, the Colorum wait for Rizal’s return and the country waits for Bernardo Carpio’s rise, the single most unambiguously hopeful act in the film is a man teaching a blind young girl a poem -- a poem that she will pass on to her children, they to their children, and so on, while the others listening (presumably this is not the girl’s first performance) will remember and pass on in turn to their children, and so forth. Differences (between Isagani and Simoun, between Gregorio and Cesaria, between Simoun and the Kapitan Heneral) are not so much set aside or forgotten or even forgiven as they are rendered in their proper perspective: that in the vaster scheme of things, in a country where little lasts beyond a decade -- not houses (often built of wood) nor buildings (often neglected to the point of crumbling) nor modern dictatorships (21 years, at most) -- art lasts. Art endures. Art is possibly the country’s best and most cost-effective chance at immortality.

Ah no -- no. Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis is a gorgeous film that traces the outlines of the Philippine character, flaws and virtues and all, from the ferment of its end-of-the-century rebellion through its 400 years of colonial past down to its ancient pagan roots. If every foreign critic hated it for its many flawed details (forgot to mention, some of the Spanish dialog sounded stilted), its dialog-heavy dramaturgy, its (ultimately irrelevant) length, none of that matters. The film was made for us Filipinos, to fill our hunger for poetry and narrative and magic, to give us back a sense of our storied past, and give us back our mythical and historical dead.