Monday, December 07, 2009

Lav Diaz's 'Melancholia' and the Maguindanao Massacre

Violence is a part of the Filipino political landscape no matter who is president, no matter what political system is in place; the Maguindanao Massacre (or Ampatuan Massacre, as it is alternatively known) is just the most recent and arguably most horrifying confirmation of this ugly fact.

Filipino films have on occasion reflected this reality. One of the earliest and most powerful examples would be Gerardo De Leon's The Moises Padilla Story (1961), about an honest man running for mayor who is kidnapped, tortured, and killed for his aspirations. Even today the film is capable of disturbing one's complacency as much for the violence (at one point the man is brutally blinded) as for De Leon's visual subtext, presenting Padilla as a kind of suffering Christ figure (think Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ only done with subtlety and a kind of horrifying grace), with former president Joseph Estrada playing an equally tormented Judas (Esrada's greatest tragic role, I submit, with his presidency being a kind of late, great tragicomic performance).

During the '80s, possibly no one has recorded government and military abuses with as much persistent thoroughness as Jose 'Pete' Lacaba--his scripts for Mike De Leon, Lino Brocka and Chito Rono managed to force three seemingly disparate Filipino filmmakers to conform to his strong auteurial voice. Sister Stella L. (1984), script realized by Mike De Leon, contains a scene which unblinkingly depicts the torture and 'salvaging' (the then-popular term for extralegal executions) of a political activist during the waning years of the Marcos administration. Orapronobis (Fight for Us, 1989), script helmed by Lino Brocka, went a step further, showing us the beating, rape, and murder of political activists during the Aquino administration. At one point, a character declares that Aquino was
"worse than Marcos," that her lack of control over the paramilitary groups roaming the countryside created more corruption, more chaos, more occasion for atrocities, than was possible under Marcos' dictatorship--a brave statement, considering how popular Ms. Aquino was at the time. Eskapo (1995), script executed by Chito Rono, acted as a kind of prequel depicting the early days of Marcos' swiftly imposed Martial Law, when even the powerful political elite were easily taken prisoner, when Marcos' grip was terrifyingly absolute, when flight was the only sane response.

Mario O'Hara's Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000) depicts atrocities done by the Negros military in alternately lyrical, historical, and supernatural terms. Seen through the eyes of children, the military is a nebulous creature hiding in the surrounding enchanted forests; growing up, these same children recognize the figures stepping out of their fabled past as all-too-real human monsters with a policy of (not to mention taste for) violent response (the atrocities depicted here, including a true one involving a man dropped from a helicopter, are some of the most baroque and sadistic I've ever seen). In the film's last act, the children finally realize that the monsters are inescapably inside them, inescapably themselves, and the only possible response to this bitter epiphany is a kind of agonized poetic cry.

Lav Diaz has done more than his share to depict political violence in the Filipino landscape, in films such as Batang West Side (2001), Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (2002), and Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2006).

Encantos might serve as a prelude to Lav's latest, Melancholia (2008)--where in the former it is hinted that military persecution was at the heart of the protagonist's anguish, here it is front and center the film's very theme. Three survivors of a military operation attempt to deal with the trauma of their ordeal and the experience of losing of their loved ones by staging a kind of psychodrama, where the three live in a provincial town (the beautiful Northern community of Sagada) under radically new identities.

One isn't sure exactly how this form of therapy might work, or even if it will work, but the conceit has its emotionally wrenching moments (one survivor's act of psychological cruelty towards the other two) and odd tender ones (an encounter between two women that develops into a profound friendship); it takes its eponymous mood and sustains it for the entire eight-hour running time, ringing slight variations in emotional tone by switching setting (from indoors to the wide outdoors; from bohemian to middle-class to desaparecidos
; from Sagada to Manila to the unspecified forest in which the military hunt their leftist prey) and voice (from third-person impersonal to memory to nightmare fantasy) and time (from present to extended flashback to a kind of eternal present). The effect across generations is touched upon--one character is the child of disappeared parents, and her life and personality has been warped accordingly; another, the mother of one of the survivors, simply cannot comprehend the enormity of change in her daughter.

Perhaps Diaz's greatest tribute to his fallen comrades and all who have suffered and survived is the very existence of this film--the fact that it takes eight hours of intense lyrical storytelling to do the subject at least partial justice.There is no attempt at humor; there are few moments when the sense of loss does not hang heavy in the air; there is little possibility (nor does Diaz offer any hope otherwise) that this can ever be relieved. This may be Diaz's angriest, most anguished work yet, and the fact that it speaks with volume pitched barely above a whisper serves to intensify that anger, that anguish--like a blowtorch whose flame has been turned down from roaring yellow to an intense blue it hisses its absolute fury.



Unknown said...

Hi. I do not know you, but I've been reading this blog for quite some time now. You may get this often, but I want to thank you for doing this, for looking into our own cinema.

To be honest, these reviews are as close as I can get to seeing our own films. I haven't seen any of Diaz', or most of the gems of the 70s and 60s. But through your eyes, somehow, I get to realize exactly what I have been missing.

Again, thank you.

Noel Vera said...

Thank you for letting me know that.

Anonymous said...

I don't have ever seen a Flipino movie.
Some yars ago I saw one cult film "The Dangeroue Seductress" was the the title but I don't remember the country, maybe it was a Filipino movie, I'm not sure.
From your post it seems very interest The Moises Padilla Story.
So long.

Noel Vera said...

Never heard of that title, maybe not.

I have a post on what's available on DVD. Check them out, if you like.

Jesús Cortés said...

Noel, remarkable comment for a monumental, historic, huge success of a film that every person interested in cinema and history and not only moviegoers must see.
Surpassing Encantos don´t you think?, maybe

Noel Vera said...

I loved Encantos' way of matching outer landscape to inner mindscape--Lav couldn't achieve that kind of devastation if he had a hundred million dollars. I also love the humor, which I missed since Batang West Side (his masterpiece, I think), and eloquence, which is really his element.

That said, there is real pain in Melancholia, and a kind of suppressed anger. And I think the Maguindanao Massacre just made this film all the more relevant.

TG Staff said...

You know, I should've asked this earlier:

Where the hell can I actually see Diaz's movies?

Noel Vera said...

I don't know.

Your best bet is to watch out for film festivals. San Francisco and Vancouver and New York have shown his works.

Sloppy Diarist said...

Dear Critic After Dark,

Greetings from Houston, USA and Happy New Year!

I posted questions about the Maguindanao massacre on my blog. I hope to attract responses from the Philippine bloggers, including yoursef:

Thank you.