When it was nominated for the Gawad Urian best picture award in 2004, it was warned that Lav Diaz’s “Ebolusyon ng Pamilyang Pilipino” might trigger a revolution. Seven years later, the revolution has been fully realized, and it’s tectonic—nothing less than a sweeping artistic ferment set off by the digital upheaval.
“Ebolusyon” was the first full-length digital film in Philippine history and by its sheer length—more than 10 hours!—it’s very remote we would ever forget that milestone. A marathon screening of the movie embodies its length and breadth, a virtual-reality tour of what its comprehensive narrative tries to capture: the epic tale of the Filipino nation.
Raynaldo (Elryan De Vera) is rescued as an infant from abandonment by a mentally unhinged woman, Hilda (Marife Necisito). She takes him back to her family in the countryside, where he grows up to witness and suffer the lot of Filipino farmers: enslavement to the land, getting caught in the crossfire of political conflicts, and severe displacement. He flees and joins a mining family in the high lands. In his new world, he discovers that same plaintive reality of loss, suffering and dislodgement.
Thus, the thread that connects “Ebolusyon” from Lav Diaz’s previous film, Batang West Side, is dislocation and bereavement of place. If the Pinoy cop in America is fleeing his twisted past as a torturer in West Side, Raynaldo represents the victim, the other end of the torture process. The boy rescued from the dumps by a deranged woman represents the derangement inflicted by the warped reality of the Philippines. He won’t be like Jacob sold to slavery by his brothers and later exalted in Egypt. When Raynaldo returns to his original foster family toward the end of the movie, he comes full circle. We know his lot has not vastly changed; in fact, his foster sisters bring aid to the communist underground on the sly, just like when he was a boy, his foster uncle (Pen Medina) stole guns from the military and sold them to the communists. But Raynaldo knows there will be no surprises. He will not come unhinged like his beloved Hilda who rescued him from the garbage dump as a baby. He will abide by the reality.
“Ebolusyon” is a powerful movie. It is a movie that makes us abide by the torment and agony that is Philippine history in the last 30 years. It relives the darkness of martial law, the dilemmas of the Aquino transition, and the bedlam that constitutes the present. The movie explains much of the horror, the better to confront it.
Of course, the most distinctive aspect of Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino is also the most problematic—its chronological conceit. How could an important movie that is a veritable contemporary Philippine epic be so liberal with its narrative length—more than 10 hours—that it risks losing the audience that it seeks to affect and influence?
The answer is that there’s so much liberality and comprehensiveness in the vision of its filmmaker, Lav Diaz, that the audience can take the calculated risk of sitting through Ebolusyon, imbibing its spirit that meanders through the alleys and byways of Philippine history, a tortuous path that, to critics of the film, is allegedly reflected in the movie’s rather tortuous length.
But Ebolusyon is too significant to be dismissed as a movie that takes its title too literally. It is an important contribution to world cinema, signaling both a refusal to be confined to the two-hour limit of commercial cinema and an embrace of the artistic potentials of digital cinema, particularly its capacity to release the artist from the servitude and conventions of the studio system.
The latter is perhaps the other distinctive aspect of Ebolusyon—the adamant, unabashed adoption of digital cinema, its limits and possibilities. No wonder, Diaz could care about time. Digital knows no time; it just goes on and on. It is a technological stream of consciousness if there was one. It democratizes image-recording. And you know what St. Thomas Aquinas says about democracy: it tends toward anarchy.
It’s a technology, too, that creates its audience. Part of the reason Diaz’s work is not your ordinary two-hour movie is that it is not one: it hasn’t been transferred to celluloid, unlike, for example, Laurice Guillen’s “Santa Santita” which was shot on video but transferred on film for commercial release. It is therefore not meant to be shown in theaters. It’s meant to be seen in video houses, on a more intimate setting perhaps, in episodic fashion probably, like the soap opera that is a funny metaphor in the movie.
Ebolusyon is clearly for marathoners. It is a movie that is not to be seen in a rush. Doing so may make one miss its other conceits. The subplot on the conspiracy to assassinate the filmmaker Lino Brocka for agitating the farmers in the land reform question is one delicious hyperbole. Obviously this is Lav Diaz’s tribute to the power of the cinema. Or is he lamenting that Brocka did not live long enough to finally trigger a revolution?
To be sure, some of the film’s expansive peregrinations may reach a dead end, especially the rather distended episode of Kadyo (Pen Medina) when he leaves prison: after failing to integrate back to society, he returns to a life of crime and becoming a hired killer, balks at the prospect of killing Brocka. The conspiracy turns against him, and as he makes his final bloody crawl to his death, we know he has been making the final gasp at life all along. He has been a living dead even without the fatal dagger wound. There’s no need to belabor that.
There’s also the historical lapse. After Kadyo informs us that he received word about the whereabouts of Raynaldo in 1988, we see him wandering into the Mendiola massacre, which took place in January 1987.
But never mind. Ebolusyon is an artistic rarity. A film like this only comes once in 10 years.