El Filibustero: Lav Diaz’s A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery

lav diaz

By Michael Sicinski

Certain filmmakers tend to be reduced to memes. Hong Sangsoo, for example, makes the same film over and over again. The late Manoel de Oliveira made stodgy, “old man” films. Guy Maddin is a pastiche artist, Michael Haneke is a scold, Spike Lee lacks discipline, and Lars von Trier is a stunted little nihilist who uses his films to enact his own fantasies of sadism and revenge. These shorthand characterizations are a fantastic way to short-circuit any actual engagement with the films before us, and I by no means exempt myself from the tendency. Patterns emerge, but they don’t have to harden into glib logos—world cinema as Nike swoosh.

As we turn our attention to the recent work of Malay-Filipino master Lav Diaz, we have to grapple with his cinematic trademark, the stylistic element that is used by detractors not only to bash his films as indulgent, but to avoid watching them altogether. Diaz is “the long film guy,” one of the only major auteurs on the international scene who consistently challenges the limits of conventional cinematic running times.

Diaz has made a number of shorter films, most notably Butterflies Have No Memory, his 40-minute contribution to the 2009 Jeonju Digital Project, as well as his newest film, The Day Before the End, which premiered this year at Oberhausen. The Day Before the End is a kind of futuristic addendum to his documentary Storm Children, Book One (2014), about the impact of the typhoon Haidan (Yolanda) on the Philippines. (Storm Children, which runs a comparatively brisk 143 minutes, and the new film have both been acquired for distribution by Grasshopper Film, the new imprint led by Ryan Krivoshey, formerly of Cinema Guild. The Day Before the End can be viewed for free on the Grasshopper website.)

But, of course, these short works are the exception to the rule. Beginning with the 315-minute Batang West Side (2001), considered by aficionados to be Diaz’s first major film, the director has tended toward extreme length, which has regrettably tagged him as a kind of cinephile in-joke. Since Diaz’s films mainly tend to play festivals—their length is, among other things, a conscious flouting of commercial considerations, since, recent Philippine runs notwithstanding, exhibitors cannot devote screens to films whose very form prevents ticket-buyer turnover—even the most hard-boiled among us tend to regard seeing Diaz’s work as a “duty,” something that requires setting aside an entire day that could otherwise be devoted to four or five different movies, most if not all of them eye-gougingly terrible. Sometimes even a single day is not enough. Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) is nine hours long; Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), depending on the edit, edges toward eleven.

All of this stereotyping of Diaz fails to ask one very basic question: What is Diaz doing with temporality? Some answers to this question are fairly obvious. Simply by expanding the conventional time span of a single cinematic object, Diaz contravenes the entertainment industry’s organization of time and its hold on our imaginations. The institutional limits of acceptable film length, a feedback loop that in turn conditions the attention spans to which those boundaries are ostensibly meant to cater, necessarily limits the depth and expanse in which any subject may be explored. (This is what British filmmaker Peter Watkins calls the “monoform.”) Filipino critic and Kino Punch magazine founder Adrian Mendizabal has explored this problem about as well as anyone, in a fascinating essay that compares Diaz’s cinema to, among other things, the media theory of Vilem Flusser and the third X-Men movie.

But then there’s slowness. Diaz has been corralled, not to say co-opted, into the nebulous “slow cinema” movement, his expanded running times perceived as analogous to those of such perceptual-drift forebears as Warhol and Akerman. In this regard, recent slow-cinema scholars such as Ira Jaffe, William Brown, Matthew Flanagan, and Nadin Mai have all allied Diaz with the tendency, to greater or lesser degrees. Both Flanagan and Mai have made the most cogent argument in favour of Diaz’s use of unusual (or, to his detractors, inordinate) length, by claiming that his films are fields of post-trauma, wherein the various disasters and atrocities of Filipino political, cultural, and military history are not only performed but experienced as traumas that must be repeated (through art) in order to be understood and purged. Diaz, then, constructs his films not according to conventional dramaturgical time but within a battered, shell-shocked psychometric time, befitting a nation still struggling to come to terms with the demons of its own past.

This is a fine explanation, though the more one looks at Diaz’s formal procedures on a shot-by-shot level, the more one finds that the filmmaker is not nearly as reliant on the long take as such an interpretive master-plot would suggest. Diaz tends to shoot certain specific activities—searching, discoursing, remembering, and forgetting—in single, static shots. But over the long trajectory of his film works, especially the most recent ones, Diaz is more likely to employ standard decoupage. If the fixed stare at particular actions and events is strictly psychological, meant to convey the unsteady affect of a trauma victim, then Diaz’s cinema also carves out room for a more balanced, third-person perspective on events.

This third-person point of view, however, is not objective. Diaz perhaps moves us between the shattered, attenuated space of trauma and the slow, careful articulation of long suppressed left-intellectual truths. There has been a decidedly mixed response to Diaz’s latest film, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, even among the director’s usual supporters. (Noel Vera has summed up the backlash quite succinctly and, like me, finds it rather confounding.) This wasn’t necessarily because of its length, although the film’s selection for a competing slot at this year’s Berlinale—where it screened in two parts, with a rather artificial, pause-button intermission—led to the usual snark. (The very idea of jury president Meryl Streep sitting through eight arduous hours of Lav Diaz was, for some, comical in itself. Apparently, not so to Ms. Streep: Diaz received the Alfred Bauer Prize.)

Rather, Lullaby is in certain respects one of Diaz’s most classical efforts, a national epic with a surprisingly direct narrative organization. Although Lullaby is not without its problems, it is certainly one of Diaz’s finest films. The fact that it represents a highly deliberate, at times even awkward, lurch toward straightforward declamation of subjects that Diaz has previously treated in more poetic or mystical terms only shows an artist working to find new forms adequate to contemporary needs. History cannot remain an endless traumatic repetition, after all. Destructive cycles are analyzed so that they might be broken.

Lullaby begins on December 30, 1896, with the execution of Filipino nationalist and author Dr. José Rizal. Although we do not witness the firing squad, we see a crowd of onlookers watch aghast as the Spanish colonial army dispatches their champion. Eight hours later, after much anguished wandering through burning forests and jungles, a mostly female search party finally gives up their hunt for the missing Father of the Revolution, Andres Bonifacio, and his brother Procopio. The women, led by Andres’ distraught wife Gregoria de Jesús (Hazel Orencio), finally accept that the Bonifacio brothers have been dead all along, murdered by the Spaniards and most likely buried in unmarked graves. So the film assays a specific, very pivotal period in Philippine history.

Diaz’s previous two features, From What Is Before (2014, winner of the Golden Leopard at Locarno) and Norte, the End of History (2013), were both widely praised by many of the same critics who have been underwhelmed by Lullaby. Granted, Norte is an outlier, clocking in at a mere four hours, shot in colour, and adopting the general framework of a masterpiece of Western literature (Crime and Punishment). For any other filmmaker working today, Norte would have seemed hopelessly outré, but it was Diaz’s “breakthrough” of sorts, even premiering at Cannes. Nevertheless, both Norte and From What Is Before are set in far less distant moments in Philippine history (the Marcos regime), providing them with a built-in accessibility—recognizable environments, ordinary language, relatively naturalistic human comportment—that Lullaby sorely lacks.

But the significant shift reflected in the new film goes deeper than historical anteriority. There is a matter-of-factness to Lullaby that sets it apart from much of Diaz’s filmography. The first 90 minutes consists of an extended prologue, in which we witness the immediate aftermath of Rizal’s execution. Diaz introduces us to key players in the revolutionary tale, a combination of actual historical figures and fictional characters drawn from Rizal’s 1891 political novel El filibusterismo. Particular emphasis is given to the young intellectual Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz) and his wealthy, duplicitous associate Simoun (Piolo Pascual), two Rizal protagonists. We are also shown extended battlefield sequences, although in almost every case the fighting has already occurred and the Bonifacios’ Katipunan forces have been comprehensively routed by the Spaniards, led by the smugly urbane Captain General (Bart Guingona).

From this point onward, Lullaby is essentially two interwoven road movies, with specific groups of revolutionary figures traversing the island, not so much in order to prevent or subvert Spanish domination—the colonial victory is a fait accompli by this point—but to salvage some form of human decency from the massive desolation. In one group, Isagani struggles to reach the coastal home of his uncle, Father Florentino (Menggie Cobarrubias), while transporting the mortally wounded Simoun on a hammock. Two representatives of the Filipino working class, a farmer and a ferryman, reluctantly assist Isagani for payment that is continually deferred. In the other group, Gregoria de Jesús trudges from campsite to clearing in search of her husband’s body. Accompanying her are Aling Hule (Susan Africa), a grieving but nonetheless levelheaded mother; Karyo (Joel Saracho), a handyman who isn’t fighting in battle due to his ever-worsening tuberculosis; and Caeseria Belarmino (Alessandra de Rosi), a young woman who, unbeknownst to the others, had an affair with the Spanish Captain General, providing him with critical data that led to bloody defeat for the Filipino defense forces.

As occasional refrains within this overall system of organization, Diaz permits visits from two other groups of individuals, their presence almost schematic in its structural polarity. In one corner, a stop for water at an isolated hut in the woods allows Diaz to send in the encantos—supernatural forest creatures who belong to the land and defend it against human folly. These particular encantos are Tikbalang, or half-human horse spirits, although one would never know it by looking at them. As trickster figures, they tend to promise help but only add to the chaos around them.

In the opposing corner, we observe the Colorum, a kind of doomsday cult of the Blessed Virgin, led by the charismatic Sebastian Caneo (Ronnie Lazaro). The white-robed devotees have designated a local beauty queen (Sheenly Gener), against her will, as their official Virgin Mary. Basilio preaches the importance of tuning out the revolution, since they need only await the return of their saviour, the mythical folk hero Bernardo Carpio—a figure of Herculean strength and, according to Filipino legend, the bringer of earthquakes, an embodiment of the forces of creation and destruction. (The encantos, too, invoke Carpio, but much more ironically.)

In terms of Diaz’s modes of plotting and organization, Lullaby is quite different from From What Is Before, which in many ways represents the pinnacle of Diaz’s middle style—a socially situated yet modernist/psychological mode that begins with the so-called “trauma trilogy” of Death in the Land of Encantos, Melancholia (2008), and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). Like those films, From What Is Before examines Filipino social and political history from a worm’s-eye view, employing what we could think of as a cinematic version of anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s “thick description.” By focusing intently on the circumstances of a particular time and place within Philippines history (typically one within Diaz’s own experience, or at least his living memory), the films radiate their political intent outward, indirectly and in pulses, from the fictional situations and damaged psychologies depicted therein.

In more basic terms, these films use extended running times to slowly weave their all-enveloping atmospheres, their political directives (e.g., attacks on the Marcos regime) seeping in as part of the mist. From What Is Before is successful in large part because of its subtlety, since the terror it documents is a creeping one, the sort that cannot be averted because it strikes incrementally and obliquely, as is fascism’s wont. A far-flung rural barrio becomes gripped by unexplained anomalies: randomly butchered cattle, torched houses, and finally a man left bleeding in the street with no explanation. As the progressive priest Father Guido (Joel Saracho) gradually loses the confidence of the locals, superstition reigns; a poor, beleaguered spinster named Itang (Hazel Orencio) exploits her disabled sister Joselina (Karanina Haniel), who is believed to have the power to heal. Meanwhile, Uncle Sito (Perry Dizon), a respected farmer and patriarch in the area, is trying to cope with his young nephew Hakob (Reynan Abcede), who is skipping school and becoming more and more despondent.

In his highly positive Variety review, Justin Chang compared From What Is Before to 2009’s Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon. Although I’m no fan of the Haneke film, Chang’s comparison certainly holds, and tilts in favour of Diaz. In both cases, a community is beset by unexplained, seemingly supernatural travails that in fact have very real, very human culprits behind them. Nevertheless, these isolated micro-crises serve as harbingers for the larger terror to come. But perhaps more significantly, in each case the subjects of said terror are fundamentally misled by ideology, to the extent that their tenuous, unconscious grasp of the situation—their primal fear—is dead wrong. Like Haneke’s authoritarian, proto-fascist Protestants, the villagers in From What Is Before think that God has abandoned them, or that social misfits like the local poet (Noel Sto. Domingo) or the winemaker (Roeder Camanag) are to blame. In reality, they are subject to a system of political authority that is as corrupt as it is invisible. As usual, the peasantry is scared of all the wrong things.

Much of the active undoing of the barrio was caused by one person. Not without a certain audacity, Diaz litters the entire film with frequent, unwanted intrusions by Heding (Mailes Kanapi), a travelling merchant and busybody who peddles mosquito nets and spreads gossip about Itang, Joselina, Tony, and others. She takes delight in starting trouble, and before long she is breaking into homes, conducting searches, and even swiping “subversive” poems. Like the pious women of Haneke’s prewar church, Heding foments the very social ills she purports to be concerned about. But unlike those desiccated harridans, she is actually undercover, a spy gathering intelligence for Marcos.

And so, when the military shows up, led by a seemingly reasonable soldier with the droll, Pynchonian moniker of Lt. Perdito (Ian Lomongo), everyone knows it’s already too late. Most villagers pack it in, evacuating the barrio. Those with the temerity to stand their ground—most notably Father Guido and Uncle Sito—become either victims of pseudo-political thuggery or are left to bear witness to it, diligent mourners for the true Philippines that still exists among the island’s fallow fields, a dormant but deeply present physical memory.

From What Is Before is a slow, hypnotic drift into dictatorship; in one scene during the last hour, we see Perdito and Heding listening to Marcos’ speech declaring martial law. The final, semi-detached scene jumps ahead a bit, with young military goons in complete control, their behaviour as savage as anything sanctioned by Suharto or Pol Pot. Two young men, presumably enemies of the state, are hanging from a tree, while a butch young female comrade tortures them with glee. “Say, ‘I love President Marcos!’” she taunts, as they swing, unconscious.

The fact that it’s a woman cadet doing the torturing here is certainly worth noting, since it draws our attention to a recurring pattern in Diaz’s work. His Filipino leftism tends to be a male narrative. Within this master plot, women tend to be cast either as symbolic Mothers of the Nation, often subject to (equally symbolic) rape and violence (Gregoria de Jesús, Florentina Hubaldo, Melancholia’s Jenine, Norte’s Eliza) or as deceitful or traitorous (Caesaria Belarmino, Heding, Itang). Although some detractors (Neil Young and Michael Pattison chief among them) would argue that no characters in Diaz’s films are fully fleshed out, I think he simply has a bit of a blind spot where women are concerned. Exalting them, even as bearers of revolutionary meaning, is not the same as taking them seriously as human beings. At any rate, this final scene in From What Is Before is a complicated one, in that Diaz again depicts a woman as devious and cunning, while at the same time placing her in a role that is unconventional enough to at least hint at a thorny psychological makeup.

This is an issue that troubles Lullaby as well, since its gender-divided sojourners follow different paths, and meet differing fates, that tend to reinforce these ideas. The distaff group consists of the traitorous Caesaria, the despondent Aline Hule, and the distraught Gregoria, whose inability to locate the Bonifacio brothers eventually drives her mad. The tubercular Karyo accompanies the women, although ironically his presence actually reinforces the gendered hierarchy. (His illness, it is noted, prevents him from fighting, and is therefore a “feminizing” feature.) Karyo’s histrionic pleading at the moment of his death, begging the encantos for additional time, only solidifies his unmanliness within Lullaby’s gender economy.

The men’s journey, meanwhile, is largely defined by overt discussions about the fate of the nation, the revolution’s defeat, and the ongoing tragedy of colonial rule in the Philippines. Isagani agonizes over the role of a poet and intellectual in a time of armed struggle. He wavers in his commitment to helping the dying Simoun, whose vague Nietzschean nihilism Isagani detests. Between sharp demands for the payment owed them, the boatman and the farmer talk with Isagani about their qualms with revolutionary violence. And periodically, Isagani meets up with his old university friend Basilio (Sid Lucero), a doctor who is running guns and providing medicine for the insurgents.

There is a pleasing schematism to Lullaby, particularly after the first two hours. I think this is part of what some critics find irksome about the film, especially since it runs almost directly counter to the porous, organic structure of From What Is Before. Norte, by way of contrast, seems to operate somewhere in between. But since its narrative determinism and hard formal shell are recognizably borrowed from Dostoyevsky, Diaz seems to have gotten a lot of slack even from viewers who generally run hot and cold on him. Granted, this A/B form is hardly absolute. The odd trinity of Tikbalang, or horse-spirit encantos (Bernardo Bernardo, Cherie Gil, and Angel Aquino), insert themselves at unexpected times, disrupting the film’s regular flow.

Some reviewers who found Lullaby to be something of a chore, such as Variety’s Guy Lodge and Indiewire’s Nicola Grozdanovic, have called for more Tikbalang interludes. This is always an odd strategy in critiquing a film, treating the aesthetic experience as if it were a trip to Burger King. “More wild prancing, less national malaise!” Granted, the mythical beings’ appearance in the midst of such a doggedly materialist film is invigorating, especially Bernardo, who struts in his striped suit and straw hat like a carnival barker channelling Redd Foxx. What’s more, the jarring, cubist points of view employed in the encanto scenes, which allow Diaz to “transform” the three beings into one another without warning, are formally unlike the rest of Lullaby, and stand out all the more for this.

But isn’t this the point? Diaz, a master of framing, editing, and mise en scène, understands the power of disruption, particularly within an eight-hour tapestry. There is a blinding clarity to Diaz’s imagery, each and every black-and-white frame replete with texture, density, and information. Although he and cinematographer Larry Manda work digitally, Diaz’s landscapes, in particular, possess the muscular tonal ranges of Ansel Adams’ Zone System. The dominant visual code in Lullaby, the means by which Diaz embosses his historical exegesis onto the screen, is the still shot in Academy ratio, showing a thicket of trees and underbrush, usually on fire. Light through fog permeates many of these frames, as if the revolution and its collapse produces its own dialectic of obscurity, the revealing flame and the concealing smoke: the illuminating gas, then the waterfall. Very frequently, a human figure emerges from the image field, coming into view as though they are both part of the land and struggling to free themselves from its grip.

A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery is a transitional work. In some ways, it’s a march through a pivotal moment in the history of the Philippines, physically arduous and aggressively declamatory. Although the route is circuitous, it is a purposeful one; Diaz, like Isagani, is himself questioning the role of poetry in times of strife. Bookended by the deaths of two great Filipino statesmen, Rizal and Bonifacio, Diaz asks us to spend a literal working day considering the Spanish occupation, not as lingering miasma but as a patient calling to account. Diaz recognizes, even if some of his critics do not, that traumatic repetition has to end. In Lullaby, we are watching as grief slowly evolves into anger.