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The bloody 1896 Philippine Revolution began as a popular uprising for emancipation from 300 years of Spanish rule, then turned into a nasty power struggle among revolutionary leaders before ending in an uneasy truce. This fascinating piece of history is not so much recounted as expressively reimagined in A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis), by Filipino writer-director Lav Diaz, whose marathon films have made inroads into major festivals in the last few years. Shot in black and white using a squared-off frame, it’s much more a visual poem than a swashbuckling tale, again distinguished by Diaz’s trademark disregard for trying the viewer’s patience with static long takes and lack of narrative flow. It showcased in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival to a select but appreciative audience, despite a running time that exceeds eight hours, in what may break a record for any major world festival.
Though Diaz’s cult reputation among a certain type of festgoer ensures the film will be seen and cheered on the extreme high-brow end of the circuit, it should be said that it is a step back in coherency and focus from his 2014 effort From What Is Before, which won the Golden Leopard in Locarno. The latter’s overt politicism (which never hurts in this sort of endless non-actioner) and indictment of the rule of Ferdinand Marcos here becomes a vague call to Filipino progress in which freedom from Spain is just the beginning of a long democratic process. All well and good, but spread over hours of poetic ramblings, the message loses most of its urgency.
Bordering on unintentional folk farce due to its clumsy characters and contrarian storytelling, the pic is likely to turn off many more than it enchants. The main alienation factor is not its inordinate length (after all, Bela Tarr’s darkly funny Satan’s Tango was riveting and only half an hour shorter.) It is the exasperating indulgence and lack of finesse in the editing, for which Diaz takes sole credit. Not only does it slow down the story, but makes it hard to grasp what’s going on. It takes at least an hour to guess who the main characters are, and the dark, often punishing black-and-white lighting (typically without any credible source) makes matters all the more difficult to decipher.
The screenplay ever-so-slowly develops two narrative threads, carried forward by groups of characters who only overlap once, without recognizing each other. One group represents the upper classes of Filipino society and their attitude toward the revolution. Isgani (John Lloyd Cruz), a well-fed poet always anguishing over what to do, recalls the idealistic hero of Diaz’s Crime and Punishment adaptation, Norte, the End of History. He has been led astray, and his life seriously damaged, by listening to the brilliant aristo rabble-rouser Simoun (Piolo Pascual’s wry irony makes him easily the film’s most memorable character). Simoun’s dark role is to foment hatred in men’s souls so the destructive revolution can begin. He succeeds, but later repents. He becomes Isgani’s cross to bear in the pic’s last four hours or so, when he is wounded and needs to be transported across half the Philippines, through jungles and over mountains, in a hammock.
The other story that unfolds belongs to the women of the revolution who gather around Gregoria de Jesus, a.k.a. Oryang (Hazel Orencio), wife of the revered leader Andres Bonifacio. Andres has been captured by another would-be El Supremo, Emilio Aguinaldo, whose intentions are not good. When her husband vanishes, Oryang becomes determined to find him at whatever the cost, along with her supporters Caesaria Belarmino (Alessandra De Rossi), the “celebrated beauty of Silang” who betrayed her hometown and caused a massacre; the grieving mother Aling Hule (Susan Africa); and Karyo, a simple man with advanced lung disease (Joel Saracho). Together they march up a magic mountain inhabited by buffoonish horse-spirits called Encantos, who are of no help to Gregoria and who aren’t very funny, either. Nor does she find solace from the Colorum, a bizarre religious cult living in a big cave, led by a wailing priest (Ronnie Lazaro) who has his own take on the revolution. If the Encantos are thrown in to illustrate the richness of Filipino mythology, the Colorums seem like a weak dig at the local clergy and their distance from reality.
There is a richness here that strains to be channeled into a focused film. With the whole revolution taking place off-camera, it is also a very interiorized film. Diaz has great feeling for the human comedy, where cowardice and betrayal alternate with heroism and solidarity. But reducing everything to an indecisive intellectual, a half-mad wife and some cackling evildoers rather simplifies the tale.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
Production companies: Ten17P, Epicmedia, Sine Olivia Pilipinas
Cast: John Lloyd Cruz, Piolo Pascual, Hazel Orencio, Alessandra De Rossi, Joel Saracho, Susan Africa, Bernardo Bernardo, Cherie Gil, Angel Aquino
Director-screenwriter-editor: Lav Diaz
Producers: Bianca Balbuena, Paul Soriano
Executive producer: Paul Soriano
Director of photography: Larry Manda
Production designer: Popo Diaz
Costume designer: Jona Ballaran
World sales: Films Boutique
Not rated, 485 minutes
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