(Now available on iTunes, with English subtitles)
I first saw Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong aong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God) in the 1996 Pelikula at Lipunan (Film and Society) festival two decades after its initial commercial run and was convinced it was the finest Filipino film ever made. Sitting down to watch the picture two decades later I have to approach carefully, gingerly, like with an old friend who has long since dropped out of sight: Has it lost its power? Has its edge dulled with familiarity and time? Does this World War 2 drama still speak to us--to me--with eloquence and force?
O it creaks in places. This was only O'Hara's second feature and his inexperience (and ambition) shows: Actors pause and deliver long deliberately paced monologues; lines sound awkward rolling off the tongue. A climactic confrontation in a cathedral is clumsily staged, a supposedly punitive haircut less than impressive, a handful of images have been accused of being arty and pretentious--but few films can be called perfect, I submit, and no film that pushes boundaries can ever truly be called perfect (if it was perfect it didn't push hard enough).
The film begins with Crispin (Bembol Roco) telling his sweetheart Rosario (Nora Aunor) that he's joining the guerrillas in the mountains to fight the Japanese invaders--she's angry but quiet, resigned to the fact that he's leaving but stubbornly unwilling to sweeten his departure with anything more than sullen gestures of affection. The film ends with the same Crispin sitting on a church pew, at the edge of losing his faith, asking a priest that oldest of questions: is there a god?
In between the two losses we have war, we have rape, we have murder and massacres, a whole panoply of cruelty and bitterness and madness and despair. Compared to relative newcomers like Lars Von Trier or Gaspar Noe or Takashi Miike, O'Hara's violence may seem mild or even old-fashioned in its restraint--but he modulates dark moments with affection tenderness love, and the contrast I submit is what keeps him relevant. The bits of humanity doled out sparingly here there among the film's characters ("Who knows when" they must be thinking "a chance will present itself again?") feel all the more precious because of the precariousness, because of the times.
Von Trier, Noe, Miike traffic in a nihilistic philosophy that declares the world to be a cesspool out of which we have no hope of climbing. O'Hara half agrees--the world is a cesspool--and for prima facie evidence offers Rosario, who loses her innocence and her family. Unlike Von Trier's martyred fools however Rosario remains a strong-willed woman; the more she's pulled down the more she stubbornly digs in.
How strong? In the film's first half while the Japanese are winning Rosario remains defiant; she insults Masugi (Christopher de Leon) a drunken Japanese-Filipino officer who chases her down and rapes her, and when in the next few days he returns repentant and bearing an armful of canned goods and rice she's still defiant. She's only a small-town schoolteacher but as fierce as any guerrilla (judging from Crispin and the comrades he brings down from the mountains with him perhaps fiercer).
The world having gone through a looking-glass eventually accepts the invasion and inverted order of things (Filipinos bowing to the enemy, America a distant useless ally, town church turned into POW camp), begins the process of accommodation and collaboration--and still Rosario refuses to relent (her virginity may have been compromised but her will remains inviolate). Rosario finds herself not just overwhelmed (by the might of the Japanese military, by Masugi's own physical strength) but wrong: the Japanese are here to stay (chides her parents), are the authorities now; it's time to, O, admit defeat, move on, come together, build a nation. Why can't she accept the way things are?
Because as Goethe has Mephisto* tell Faust: "You are when all is done--just what you are. Put on the most elaborate curly wig, mount learned stilts to make yourself look big, you still will be the creature that you are." Rosario unlike Faust doesn't even attempt compromise; when her defiance comes to a crisis O'Hara (in arguably the single most dramatic shot in the film) perches her at the apex of a high bridge, looking down into a gully at the hard rocks washed by a thin stream far below, her will now at odds with her humanity. Will she break? Should she break?
*(The words are all the more relevant because O'Hara once played Mephisto, in German theater director Fritz Bennewitz's staging of Goethe's classic, and I found the lines--which O'Hara delivered--full to brimming with resigned understanding of, even reluctant sympathy for, all-too-flawed human nature)
In the film's latter half Rosario (in effect stepping through the looking glass a second time, inverting herself in the process) is a changed woman resigned to her new loyalties--and still she's wrong, now more than ever: the Japanese are in the process of losing the war, the guerrillas and Americans sweeping inland in an unstoppable tide.
Rosario knows what this means of course: one of the bitterest secrets of the war is that the Japanese military for all its legendary cruelty and sadism had nothing on the people they victimized (and Rosario is a Japanese collaborator--to Filipino eyes more hateful than even the soldiers). The implications make Rosario pause--at several points you see her working things out in her head--but never give up the struggle.
The film ends on a transcendent note--and here is where I submit O'Hara leaves Von Trier, Noe, Miike and the rest of the Cinema of Outrage behind: he dares introduce hope into his film. A daring gesture, I think, possibly the cruelest of all: in the worst of times hope sustains you, buoys you beyond reason and physical ability, enables you to step forward and suffer more, much much more.
But I must correct myself; there's one emotion crueler still (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film!). When Masugi in a long scene spins out his plans for their life together and their soon-to-be-born baby, Rosario in a fit of hate and disgust flings him a deadly retort: "I don't care!" Masugi is stunned; he knows she's angry at him but never thought she'd feel that way about their child. He gropes for words, and the only thing that manages to come out of his mouth is "I love you." Aware how feeble his reply sounds, he leaves--but the words have their effect on Rosario; she's furious as ever. "Liar!" she yells after him, running down the stairs. "Liar!" she shrieks, running after the departing jeep. Hate and anger can steel us to the point of invincibility but sometimes love has a way of piercing that armor, calling into question your identity as a Filipino, your dignity as a woman, your very self and will.
That shot, incidentally, of Rosario running after Masugi's jeep, was much longer in the original print; O'Hara once described it as the finest in his career. Lost now, of course; the director remembers the footage being snipped out and used in the film's promotional trailer. Such are the tragedies of film preservation.
Does Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos still speak to us? I think so, now more than ever. Six years of a Duterte administration or four years of a Trump presidency or three of a Japanese Occupation will make anyone turn their eyes pleading heavenward; you likely won't get a proper reply, but with this film at least you'll get one man's thoughts on the subject.
First published in Businessworld 11.15.16