Lav Diaz’s most recent film, Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, conveys many of the cinematic tenets that have made Diaz one of the Philippines’ most praised auteurs on the international stage. Images of roads disappearing into provincial horizons, scenes of documentary realism interspersed with theatrically staged tableaux, characters facing the systemic failures of infrastructures and the individual failures of human beings—all echoes of Diaz’s body of works, these familiar traits reverberate across Florentina’s six hour narrative.
While these issues of content certainly play an important role in Diaz’s films, questions of formal innovation receive perhaps the most attention. In particular, the idea of his films’ duration, often running between six and twelve hours, becomes a common point of reference among critics’ and curators’ descriptions. Indeed, in the Lumen interview quoted above, Diaz notes that questions of time are both the most common and most tiresome inquiries he receives about his work. As the comments above suggest, conventional ideas of temporality hold little interest for the director, who aligns his work with the cyclicality of nature and the fragmented, archipelagic geography of his home country.
These ideas of space are integral to the story of Florentina Hubaldo, CTE. The film’s eponymous, tragic heroine lends both her name and her disease to the title, suggesting the two facets of her identity in constant struggle with one another: her name, which she lives in constant fear of forgetting, and her degenerative brain injury, which will ultimately destroy her memory. Told in a non-chronological style that weaves from Florentina’s subjective fantasies into the primary stories of her attempts to escape her abusive father, her daughter’s illness, and the labors of two treasure hunters, the film asks its viewers to bear witness to the abuse that Florentina’s father unleashes on her and others. Florentina’s narrative revolves around ideas of captivity, depicting both the body and its natural surroundings as prisons, thus emphasizing the role of space as a key means of organizing cinematic narrative.
Florentina tells the story of its titular heroine, a young woman living in rural Bicol, whose alcoholic, abusive father keeps her captive by tying her to her bed in their small bahay kubo and occasionally whoring her to local men. Florentina gave her daughter, Loteng, to a kind local farmer; Loteng suffers from an unexplained, painful illness, which eventually kills her. The farmer is visited by two men from Manila who have heard stories of buried treasure amid the rice fields; they spend much of the film digging. To escape her father, Florentina periodically runs to the woods, sometimes helped by her grandfather, who also suffers at her father’s hands. Her father continually finds her and returns her to her domestic prison. Her only solace is her ongoing fantasy of the gigantes festival, an annual fiesta that involves a parade of performers in papier-mâché costumes depicting giant human figures.
Diaz’s films often have an ambivalent perspective on the wilderness settings of the Philippines, spaces whose simultaneous beauty and malice mirror his portrayal of the human beings populating them. This is particularly the case with Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, in which the wilderness becomes a kind of prison, mirroring the prison of its lead characters’ bodies. Extreme long shots of workers picking rice dwarf the human figures against the enormous, silhouetted mountains. Florentina’s constant, fruitless attempts to escape her father’s abuses show her stumbling through the trees, finding few hiding places. The labors of the two treasure hunters become increasingly futile; their hole in the ground grows larger, while their search yields only physical exertion. The natural landscape is inescapable and unmovable, an overwhelmingly vast, timeless expanse.
The uselessness of human attempts to interfere with nature arises in the treasure hunters’ battle with a gecko, whose cries increasingly aggravate them. Against sounds of pouring rain and shovels hitting earth, the gecko’s repeated croak loops endlessly. Despite warnings that the gecko has been around for decades, implying that it would be around for decades more, one hunter succeeds in catching it. However, as the treasure hunters rest with Loteng’s adopted father, he discusses the cruelty she and Florentina have endured. The treasure hunter instinctively releases the animal. Nature might be vast and unchangeable, but it is not deliberate in its cruelty. The film reserves that trait for human beings, and the treasure hunter’s release of the gecko suggests his acknowledgment of human brutality and his unwillingness to participate in it. He releases the creature into the water, and it quickly swims away.
While the film portrays nature as a vast prison, its images of roads and waterways suggest that its expanse is not infinite. When Florentina is in the forest, she frequently stumbles; when she is on the road, she often walks or runs swiftly. The opening shot of Florentina is a common one for Diaz works. It depicts a rural road, disappearing into a horizon cramped with hills. Slowly, two figures emerge in the distance. After several minutes, they become recognizable as Florentina and her grandfather, walking with three goats. The roads are not empty; on the contrary, motorbikes, cars, and trucks speed by, indicating the simultaneous existence of two worlds. One is static, slow, and on foot; this is the world of the film’s characters. The other is dynamic and moving; this is the world that exists out of frame, whose only representatives are the blurred, noisy vehicles that pass our protagonists by, unaware and perhaps unconcerned at their existence. The sound of the road is omnipresent. Even when off screen, the filmic audioscape includes the noise of motors, intermingling with the roosters’ crows.
The roads offer the possibility of mobility and escape, while at the same time, highlighting the hopelessness of that escape for the characters the film follows. When Florentina hallucinates her interactions with the gigantes, she stands on a drizzling, nighttime street, backlit by a streetlamp. She reaches towards the camera, and the film cuts to silent shots of the gigantes parade, as Florentina tries to grasp their passing hands. In her final hallucination, we see her on a rural road, dancing with the gigantes. The long shot begins with Loteng dancing, and in the midst of their carousing she becomes Florentina. The small parade is in constant motion, moving along a street, providing a fitting image of illusion and memory. It becomes a fusion of the two modes of imprisonment in Florentina’s life—the rural landscape her monstrous father inhabits and the injured mind that allows her the momentary consolation of fantasy.
Nature is not an enemy in the film, however; its own “road,” that of the river, becomes another means of melding two different kinds of flight, physical movement and fantasy. A small boat takes the dying, invalid Loteng down the river. Slow, sun-dappled shots of the view beneath the trees indicate the small craft’s movement. On the shore, we see versions of Loteng and Florentina standing in an embrace, watching the boat that carries Loteng pass. When Loteng passes away, a shot composed like a painting depicts Florentina sitting in the river’s flowing water, cradling her adult daughter’s body as she looks directly into the lens. The river offers nature’s own means of escape, and the only access the characters have to it is death.
Florentina’s inability to escape her own, destroyed body is the film’s primary depiction of captivity, her disease imprisoning her with hallucinations and memory loss. Her disease provides fantasies of escape, as described above, and dismantles conventional temporality through its erasure of Florentina’s biography. Florentina spends much of the film repeating her biography—her name, her birth in Antipolo, her family’s move to Bicol, her mother’s unexplained death, her father’s subsequent transformation. Her disease has chipped away at her grasp on objective reality, and her repetition of her biography is her only means of keeping hold of her identity.
The film transitions from the objective perspective of the characters’ world to Florentina’s own, subjective hallucinations. Rather than showing her and her grandfather’s beatings, we see the outside of the house as the relentless soundtrack of screams, blows, and sobs provides an audio portrait of horrific violence. In contrast, the scenes of fantasy are utterly silent. Towards the end of the film, we see the shots of Florentina’s subjective hallucinations from an objective perspective. Rather than looking lovely in a dress as she reaches for the gigantes in silence, as she appeared in prior scenes, we see that as she reaches out, she is covered in blood, her face a mass of bruises as she whimpers. It is the night that Loteng’s adopted father described earlier in the film, when Florentina would stumble across his house and ask him to take her daughter, out of fear. The film ends at this primary, origin scene, her effort to provide escape, if not for herself, then for her daughter. As the viewer knows however, Loteng’s fate has already been written into her own corporeal prison. As a bloody and abused Florentina repeats her biography to the camera in the final shot, it includes full acknowledgement of her father’s monstrosity and becomes, for the first time in the film, a true account. Rather than being locked into a cycle of endless repetition, existing outside of linear time, this version of the story brings the listener, and Florentina herself, into the horrors of a present too terrible to face.
Over its six-hour narrative, Florentina Hubaldo, CTE contemplates the nature of human beings’ capacity for cruelty. Its lead characters’ fruitless struggles to escape their existence implicate the viewer, whom the final scene positions as a witness hearing Florentina’s biography-cum-confession. As the screen fades to black, the audience exits the darkened theater, liberated from their own position as spectators. While the characters are trapped in an endless cycle of violence, the viewers are free to retreat. The film’s six-hour duration heightens the contrast between cinematic diegesis and the off screen world, between audience movement and the forced stasis of the characters on screen. The day trip to the cinema does not fill empty time, but instead, ensnares the viewer in a world whose violence outweighs its beauty. Exiting the theater becomes a moment of disentanglement from that cycle, a moment built on the privilege of mobility.