A year after he wowed Berlin by looking at his home country’s turbulent past in the self-styled “rock musical” Season of the Devil, Philippine auteur Lav Diaz fast-forwards to the future in what he calls a “mix of sci-fi and horror.” Set in an apocalyptic 2034, The Halt continues the filmmaker’s long-running search into what one of his characters crisply describes as a “cataclysm of the Filipino soul.”
Unfolding at a time when the Philippines has gone completely sunless as a result of a catastrophic volcanic eruption, The Halt never veers into shiny, ultramodern CGI-driven territory. Instead, Diaz’s latest outing recalls his understated, black-and-white period dramas of yore. There are fewer long takes this time round, perhaps, and the story flits between its multitude of characters at a noticeably quicker pace.
The only thing hinting at The Halt‘s futuristic, dystopian setting is a menacing, omnipresent army of drones, machines that have seemingly replaced human police officers as agents of social control. Everything else looks exactly like the Philippines of the here and now, from the cafes and cars to the soldiers and slums.
This lo-fi take on sci-fi might be attributed to the moderate resources available to Diaz (The Halt was funded by leading actor and matinee idol Piolo Pascual’s Spring Films and the director’s own Sine Olivia Pilipinas). Then again, the film is more an allegory of the present as a prediction of the future, and its depiction of the Philippines being ruled by fear by a murderous buffoon is not that unlike the way strongman-in-chief Rodrigo Duterte sows fear in the Southeast Asian country through his foul-mouthed tirades and deadly “drug wars.”
The Halt ranks as Diaz’s most straightforward and politically charged film to date, with his script spelling out everything he wanted to say in the clearest of terms. The president spews polished but delusional nonsense about his entitlement to power, officials dismiss “the discourse in truth,” while intellectuals lament the Philippines’ transformation into a “nation of forgetting” (the title of a book written by one of the characters).
Such accessibility should make The Halt a more audience-friendly title than most of Diaz’s slow-moving, smouldering outings – the film even contains a fair smattering of sex and pyrotechnics, things one would hardly relate to the famously austere auteur. Bowing in the Directors’ Fortnight program at Cannes, it is bound to travel on the festival circuit because of his international cinephile fanbase. Even his most ardent supporters, however, could find the film lacking in the wonderful subtlety of Norte (Un Certain Regard 2013), the emotional power of his 2016 Venice award-winner The Woman Who Left, and the strangeness of Season of the Devil.
While Diaz’s films have mostly focused on poor folk falling prey to the machinations of the state, this film revolves around those wielding power and privilege at a time of utter chaos. As darkness reigns across the Philippines in the aftermath of a natural catastrophe, the paranoid, pill-popping Nirvano Navarra (Joel Lamangan) consolidates his rule by fostering the image of a leader anointed by God and the perception of a country besieged by epidemics and insurrections. It’s a strategy of tension he aims to expand further through Operation Black Rain, in which he intends to spread poison gas across vast swathes of the country suspected of harboring opponents to his rule.
Behind that monstrous veneer, however, lies a needy, pill-addicted creature whose madness is facilitated by his close clique of aides, particularly the Special Forces commanders Martha Officio (Hazel Orencio) and Marissa Ventura (Mara Lopez). The women are collaborators at work and lovers in private, but their relationship begins to splinter when the latter begins to pursue a prostitute known as Model 37.
This escort is, in fact, Hammy (Shaina Magdayao), a history professor who has fallen on hard times. Anguished by how she has had to resort to selling her body because she could no longer count on her academic expertise for a living, she seeks help from Jean Hadoro (Pinky Amador), a psychiatrist who offers a program aimed at those suppressing their own memories. This draws the ire of Navarra, who sees Jean’s work as a challenge on his own power and legacy.
Playing these emotional and political power games through protracted conversations — or in Navarra’s case, crazed monologues — The Halt stutters. Conducted in living rooms and non-descript cafes, the characters’ verbose expositions become increasingly repetitive. As the film proceeds, Navarra spirals increasingly towards a convenient caricature: In his own room, the dictator wanders around in a dress and engages in conversations with a mama who’s not there, before headbanging to heavy metal in a desperate attempt to annihilate the voices in his head.
Completing the main cast of characters is Hook (Pascual), an ex-soldier seeking to avenge Navarra’s campaign to starve his impoverished home village into submission. Leading a squalid life in a variety of dank hideouts, he finally gets the take Navarra down — an opportunity he squanders, leading to his flight from the city to the countryside, where he has an epiphany about the state of his nation.
Meanwhile, the drama escalates within the nexus of power, leading to an endgame driven by mutiny, murder, mob violence and regime change. Beyond the twists and turns, however, The Halt is at its most emotionally and visually powerful at its very end, when Diaz leaves his protagonists behind to concentrate on the effects of these political machinations on an impoverished street urchin. The dictator falls, but the struggle of the have-nots living in the shadows continues.
Diaz’s and Daniel Uy’s nocturnal camerawork remains exquisite throughout. But the director’s heartclearly lies in substance rather than style — and in this case, his on-screen proxy is probably Hook, an ex-rocker who has chosen another way to rebel against evil. Diaz has yet to swap art for arms in order to bring change to his society. But the fire still burns brightly within him, it seems.This is, after all, someone who turned down a chance to attend the Cannes premiere of The Halt because he has already pledged to preside over a three-week filmmaking workshop in Cuba.
Production companies: Spring Films, Sine Olivia Pilipinas
Cast: Piolo Pascual, Joel Lamangan, Shaina Magdayao, Hazel Orencio
Director-screenwriter-producer-editor: Lav Diaz
Directors of photography: Lav Diaz, Daniel Uy
Art directors: Max Celada, Allen Alzola
Costume designer: Ahmed Maulana
Sound designers: Corinne De San Jose, Jemboy Aguilar
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales: Indie Sales
In Filipino, English