By Robert Koehler

In early November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan hit the eastern Filipino island of Leyte with wind speeds as high as 195mph—the second-highest ever recorded in the Western Pacific. Haiyan killed over 6,300 and flattened most of Tacloban City, the hometown of filmmaker Carlo Francisco Manatad. In his feature debut, Manatad has reconceived the Haiyan disaster as a vision from hell with nods to Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948), Buñuel, and Bosch. It is an exceptionally ambitious display of catastrophe art and mise en scène.

It could also go further. Manatad’s script, co-written with Giancarlo Abrahan V. and Jérémie Dubois, attempts with extremely mixed results to revisit several dramatic aspects of classic Italian neorealism, particularly the always-tricky blend of actual settings and characters swept up in a soap-opera plotline. Amidst the rubble left by Haiyan, a young man named Miguel (the strapping, handsome Daniel Padilla) seeks and finds his girlfriend Andrea (Rans Rifol, heavy with attitude) and his mother Norma (Charo Santos, even heavier on the emotion meter). The trio unite and divide at regular intervals during their struggle to escape from the island before the next wave of the storm hits. But while their interpersonal struggles sometimes feel genuine, at other times they come across as abstracted and overly designed.

This seems to be intentional, but it’s a questionable concept in the context of recreating an actual catastrophe. Manatad (with powerful contributions from cinematographer Teck Siang Lim and production designer Whammy Alcazaren) creates several surrealist (even Christian surrealist) images and sequences, but, like the dramatics, they play as alternately bold and false. Yet there is something potentially extraordinary here—Manatad may eventually emerge as the first Filipino filmmaker since Lav Diaz to really swing for the fences with the kind of cinema that haunts your dreams.