It almost feels as if Diaz is telling the story through sound but just like basically simple sound acts so peculiarly, so act the shadows, the camera, the people. What feels seemingly paradoxical for Diaz, the film is told through the action, through the movement – not only because he uses handheld camera but because actors aren’t acting but we are simply observing their “squirm”.
Once focused on human for long enough, her/his actions become something more, really the interpretation of their personality; the ending feels almost banal for a moment, we keep guessing whether it ends but ultimately Diaz keeps the rhythm up so far that it becomes our rhythm and we forget everything to see everything better through what we see on the screen. And ultimately I think that this is his secret, this is how he keeps us with his films, how we can suddenly feel the heartbeat of everything. If time is the heart, Diaz doesn’t forget that heart as simply heart is nothing but dead thing; the frame is body and everything in it is an important organ. Heart must pump blood to them – therefore observing everything becomes essential even if Diaz can break his own rules. This is rather reduced way to see his cinema but I don’t think it is without a sense of truth in it.
Typical to Diaz, narration is decentralized to the point that only seeming link is “realistic environment” but this time Diaz also breaks this rules using complete silence and the contrast of sound (just like he breaks static camera much more often) that aren’t really helping to identify different levels but to mess up everything even more. Sound wanders around and doesn’t necessarily line up as we thought it would; for example Diaz uses Hector also as “a narrator” who wonders out loud or in his head the meaning of it all, becoming “bystander” or “outsider”, someone whose story this could be. It raises the question of who is actually the narrator of it all and complicates the mystery further, turning the whole film into something universal (even if it feels ultimately local). The film is full of paradoxes and I feel that this is an essential film when we start to specify and observe Diaz’s filmography.
It isn’t clear what the film is really about because it divides into so many directions back and forth and its characters are never one-dimensional; character cannot be interpreted without comparing it to others. Very simple sump up of the main theme would be that Florentina Hubaldo represents Philippines that is constantly trying to remind herself what she is so that she can survive. She is raped by countless men just like the country that seems to be constantly occupied and even if she tries to remind herself who she is, her identity is completely shattered. Sadness is ultimately madness and vice versa, straight interpretation about whether she is really mad or not cannot be made or it could but something seems to stop us from making it even if Diaz’s films are occupied with people who go mad out of sadness. Father is the one who sells her to the men and he could be seen as somewhat representation of local government, something that is unable to do anything but to oppress her own kind to get out the pennies of “foreign oppressors” who therefore pay him his drinks. Grandfather could really be representation of the people themselves, those who try to act but are too weak to match the power of oppression. If this is the central set-up, then where the other outsiders fit? Two men, unrelated to Florentina’s sufferings, are searching for a buried treasure, something they heard exist but aren’t quite sure. They are curious but occupied by their own worlds and when they can’t find anything, they turn against each other in a scenes that remind dog fighting; there’s definitely theme of primitiveness that takes metaphysical tones. How could these people really be able to do anything when they turn against each other?
But as I just saw while writing, if this is everything there would be, many aspects of the film would be left unsaid. It is obvious that the film cannot be read as an allegory. There’s always the sense of history in Diaz’s films and he has said many times that he makes films about “his people”, therefore it is rightful to interpret that these themes are not just drawn from the wind but that they reflect on the people from the pages of history. In modern times we interpret (or we should, one thesis that Diaz also pursues with his films) historically, we are the products of the history. If the father character isn’t “directly” the government, there’s certain mentality the film reflects that we can put to its place. At least we can ask, could it be…? Same goes with the rest.
So what is Florentina Hubaldo, CTE? With one viewing, I cannot say and I don’t actually really want to. Good film always lights up the flame and keeps one guessing until the next time when we see things from different perspective. We are historical creatures, films aren’t just the products of their times, best of them grow old with us and when we are gone, they return back. And so the flame grows little by little; still even small flame can warm us up. Ever since I saw From What is Before couple of years ago, I’ve always said: Diaz’s melancholy and seeming pessimism aren’t products of a pessimist director with pessimist worldview but rather by someone who has vision to change the world with the power of art – the positiveness of it all lays in the fact that Diaz shows “the truth”. In a way, I think I could quote Oedipus in the context of Camus and his interpretation of “The Myth of Sisyphus”: “All is well.”
Valtteri is on Letterboxd.