I sat through Lav Diaz’ , the 4-1/2 hour film that won critical acclaim in Cannes and other film festivals this year.
It has fabulous photography—wide angle landscapes, the varied green colors of rural Philippines, a well-chosen cast of characters handled by competent and convincing actors and a narrative that holds attention, interest and suspense up to a point.
Fabian Viduya is the principal character, a law school dropout coming from an elite provincial family with apparently dysfunctional parents. He philosophizes endlessly with classmates, friends, his gang about what he considers the post-modern world that is beyond the isms of contemporary history—existentialism, anarchism, communism, belief systems, ethics, morality. He goes on and on in a disaffected, angry, passionate persona that stipulates there is only Right and Wrong clearly discernible and available for choice. The friends protest and you wonder who is the target of the discourse, him and his ilk or the rest of us too.
Meanwhile we are in the grinding poverty of the Ilocano North (they supposedly live in Badoc, Ilocos Norte) next to the sea where the fishing is scarce, people are in the thrall of a money-grubbing, insensitive and endemically cruel moneylender. One family, that of Joaquin, consisting of wife, two children and sister are particularly downtrodden. Joaquin has injured his leg and they live on loans from the moneylender who in the process strips them of all their saleable goods while demeaning their value including that of their pig.
Fabian Viduya, who is supposed to be from the elite, is puzzlingly one of the moneylender’s clients enduring all the mata pobre mannerisms of Aling Magda (her name).
Eventually, there is a murder, that of Aling Magda by Fabian, which is pinned on Joaquin who is convicted and sent off to Muntinlupa leaving an impoverished and bereft family behind.
Here is where the movie triumphs in tale and characterization—the smalltown lawyer who has obviously gotten all Joaquin’s wife can pay and is therefore indifferent to the fate of the family and his client, the provincial jail where bullying, violence, hired killers lurk. And then our National Penitentiary where conditions are more stark, more anomalous, more unbearable.
The movie pace is deliberate, dialogue is full of pauses, less words than inner sighs (though sometimes it tends to be infantile and wordy), more routine action than a thinking discussion of the suffering that is being endured. The scenes are interspersed with violent scenes—murder, prison bullying and killing.
It takes hours and then one begins to wonder about Fabian Viduya who said that Right and Wrong is all there is and yet he murders and lets someone take the rap. He flees in guilt but not even a Born Again cult can make him articulate his sin and much less his sorrow. He returns to the scene of the crime still angry with sporadic attempts at helping the downtrodden with the ill-gotten gains of his crime.
Meanwhile, life goes on in Muntinlupa, in Badoc, along the sea, in the barrios. Law classmates have become lawyers, Fabian returns to touch base with them and his family —sister, grandfather, dog. They are beautifully conceptualized. Then out of nowhere except from an anger that seems beyond reason and mitigation, Fabian erupts into cataclysmic violence. It is hard to explain the characterization except to speculate that it is not Right and Wrong as he preached but a perversion of them that drives him, a self-hatred of his class and its amenities including the dog. All must be punished.
There are also some scenes of what seems to be a bow to Magic Realism but they are not consistent with the rest of the film.
I may have misunderstood the narrative and I am afraid many of the audience will. Which brings me to ask if this is an Indie film protocol.
Otherwise, I shed tears for Ate (shouldn’t it be Manang if they use the Ilocano Ading in conjunction with it?). Most scenes are credible, touching, abhorrent, tragic. Except for some unintentionally funny ones like the mini car with mini wheels that the Bureau of Penology will use to load prisoners from far off Laoag to the National Penitentiary, a vehicular mishap will surely occur.
I also thank the Director for not having gratuitous violence on scene but like Shakespeare off to the side. There is poverty but it is not exploitative. Lav Diaz has talent and skill and we can all look forward to more of his films. But I do miss the catharsis that tragedy can bring —the eventual comprehension of the human condition, the ability to rise above its pedestrian, gutter realities to higher emotions, nobler thoughts and actions from its principal character, for that too is being real.
But the last word belongs to Diaz.