'Season of the Devil' ('Ang Panahon ng Halimaw'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

'La La Land' this is not.

Lav Diaz's four-hour monochrome musical revolves around the carnage unleashed by a government-backed militia and its hellfire-preacher leader in a Philippine village in 1979.

In the past year, musical films have emerged as the new noir. Decades after Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet blazed a trail with their stark and entirely sync-sound adaptations of Schonberg operas, austere auteurs have again begun to appropriate the genre as a velvet glove for their hard-hitting coups de grace. Following Bruno Dumont's reflections on religious piety with Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc and Pedro Pinho's critique of modern-day capitalism in The Nothing Factory, in comes perhaps the one outlier that trumps them all: Season of the Devil, a seething critique about the Philippines’ current trigger-happy president in the form of a "rock opera."

It’s hardly a concept cinephiles would usually associate with Lav Diaz ─ but that’s the exact term the 59-year-old master of slow cinema used to describe the four-hour opus he has brought to the Berlin Film Festival, where the movie bows in its main competition. Mixing the director’s own trademark stark aesthetics (static takes, a monochrome palette and unaccompanied live recording of on-set performances) with a melodramatic call for revolution akin to that in Les Miserables (stirring numbers are delivered by, among others, a poet called Hugo), Season offers a much simpler narrative than his previous outing, The Woman Who Leftand a more accessible political fable than A Lullaby for the Sorrowful Mystery, which premiered in competition in Berlin two years ago. 

Diaz has made Season a more straightforward affair probably because he feels he could no longer dress things up as allegory, something he has repeatedly done in previous films through tales set in past epochs of political uncertainty (such as the tumultuous years of the Philippine war of independence from the 1890s to the 1900s) and outright tyranny (during Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorial era in the 1970s and 1980s). The latter is best represented by From What Is Before, set around the time when Marcos imposed martial law on the country and how it impacted the Philippine national psyche thereafter.

Back then, Diaz was merely issuing a heart-wrenching warning against the possibility of history repeating itself. Today, Season is his cri de coeur about how his plea has gone unheeded. As a character muses in the film, “men never learn," while another states how Philippine history is "filled with demagogues": The country’s current trigger-happy populist president, Rodrigo Duterte, probably led Diaz to putting his revenge thriller When the Waves Are Gone on hold to fast-forward Season into production.

At the center of Season is a Philippine tyrant who delivers hateful speeches like a hellfire preacher, demonizes social outcasts and presides over extra-judicial killings of anyone deemed a rebel or drugs carrier. While set in 1979 ─ something a voiceover explicitly spells out at the beginning ─ the film is a thinly veiled allusion to Duterte's notorious modus operandi ever since he came to power in the Southeast Asian country in June 2016. 

The film unfolds after Marcos issues a decree authorizing the establishment of paramilitary organizations with a proclaimed aim of fighting armed insurgencies in the country. However, the so-called "Civilian Home Defense Forces" became the dictators’ uninhibited henchmen, who abducted, raped, tortured and killed "suspects" with impunity. 

Set in a village far away somewhere in the Philippines’ rural hinterlands, the film ─ which was actually shot in Malaysia, a country that also has a dark past of state suppression against "communists" ─ begins with a lieutenant (Hazel Orencio) asking a militia leader (Joel Saracho) to "not give in to the masses’ sensibilities" and hit hard at the local population. The thug turned lawman agrees, adding how they should "bring certainty" to the country ─ something the pair is shown doing in the next scene, as they randomly kill a student on the road and cover him with a placard saying, "I’m a rebel, don’t imitate me". 

Beyond the violence, the pair plots to "create a new church" for the people ─ that is, a cult surrounding Chairman Narciso (Noel Santo Domingo), a grotesque local leader who wears the skin of another man’s face on the back of his head while delivering high-pitched speeches to his cowering constituents. His words are never subtitled, a void Diaz probably designed so as to highlight their meaninglessness and the fact that his proxy could interpret them in whatever way they want to justify their misdeeds. 

Amid all this, young doctor Lorena (Shaina Magdayao) arrives to set up a clinic with the hope of bringing medical help to the impoverished masses. Beautiful, idealistic and generous, she is immediately targeted by the lecherous leader. Hearing of Lorena's disappearance, her poet husband, Hugo (Piolo Pascual), initially retreats into his shell before finally deciding to set out to the village to try and find her. 

Upon arrival, he runs into victims of the militia-induced violence: a village elder (Bart Guingona) gritting his teeth about what he sees and a widow (Pinky Amador) who is made a scapegoat for all the village’s misfortunes. As he gradually loses his sanity while watching all his new acquaintances falling afoul of the militia’s violent rampages, Hugo inevitably becomes the story's last martyr, as he confronts his nemesis by saying how he's "offering his life" to try and understand Lorena's ─ and possibly the Philippines' ─ fate. 

During this last exchange, the militia leader berates the literay work of the tied-up Hugo, saying how his "masterpieces are useless in this dumb country." This could be a nod to Catholic imagery about the persecution of the self-sacrificing Christ ─ Diaz, after all, once named a protagonist after the figure in his 2002 dystopian sci-fi thriller Jesus, Revolutionary ─ but this is perhaps more about Diaz, who wears long hair just like Hugo's, repeating what detractors might have said to him about how his contemplative, allegorical high art would never reach critical mass.

His subversive use of the musical-film jargon here is probably his response, as he delivers whatever views he had through the sing-song of both heroes and villains. A wannabe rock guitarist in his youth, Diaz wrote all 33 songs in the film. Admittedly, they are uneven in their musical and lyrical qualities ─ repeated stanzas do not work well in a cappella mode, for example, and Hugo and Lorena's ballads (as well as those by an onscreen "storyteller," played by the wonderfully voiced Bituin Escalante) are perhaps too close to the sappy numbers omnipresent in mainstream romance dramas ─ but at least he does manage to highlight each character’s personality through the tone of their individual leitmotifs.

His cast delivers deft performances of his numbers, too, from the heroes’ pitch-perfect turns to the villains’ deliberately blunted delivery of their ominous melodies. But it's visually that Season of the Devil ranks among Diaz’s best work. Distorting the view with chiaroscuro lighting and wide-lens camerawork, the filmmaker and DP Larry Manda also persist in using diagonal shots, with characters and their relationship with their setting frequently thrown out of joint. There’s no way one could sit back and marvel comfortably at what Season of the Devil offers ─ and perhaps that’s exactly Diaz’s point. 

Production companies: Sine Olivia Pilipinas, Epicmedia Productions, Globe Studios
Cast: Piolo Pascual, Shaina Magdayao, Pinky Amador, Bituin Escalante
Director-screenwriter-editor-composer: Lav Diaz
Producers: Bianca Balbuena, Bradley Liew
Executive producers: Quark Henares, Bianca Balbuena, Bradley Liew, Lav Diaz
Director of photography: Larry Manda
Production designer: Popo Diaz
Costume designer: Mikee Dela Cruz
Sound designer: Corinne De San Jose
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Films Boutique
In Tagalog
230 minutes