Heremias (2006) was devised as the first part of a diptych (the sequel is yet to be shot) and follows the titular merchant (Ronnie Lazaro) who decides to bid farewell to the group of artisans he is a part of and go his own way. After a near-mythical journey against the forces of nature, he lands in a shady town where his ox gets stolen and goods burned. After he comes to terms with the fact that he is not going to get justice from the corrupt police department, he decides to observe the scene of crime himself, with a hope that the criminal would come back sooner or later. It is here that he learns that the local congressman’s son is going to rape and kill a girl. And it is here – almost towards the end of this nine-hour film – that there is a trace of any “drama”. Heremias, petrified, tries to convince the local police officer and the town priest to do something about it, in vain. Diaz apparently built the film on the idea of paralysis (“the metaphor of being numbed”) and it is only during this final dramatic segment, where, for the first time, Heremias shows signs of concern and empathy, that he comes out of this (sociopolitical and historical) numbness. In a way, Heremias is the Jesus figure of the story who, after a drastic spiritual awakening, realizes that there are people worst off than him and becomes willing to suffer for the sake of others (Diaz believes this quality to be quintessentially Filipino).
Formally, Heremias deviates starkly from its legendary predecessor. Diaz seems to have found a new alternative to suit his long duration filmmaking style in digital video, where there is no worry of wasting film stock. He shoots in extremely long shots but mixes in close up. Diaz’s compositions early on in the film embody both fast moving objects, such as automobiles, and Heremias’ lumbering oxcart as if providing temporal reference for his kind of cinema. However, he also seems to be in a highly experimental mode, trying to arrive at an aesthetic that he might build his later films on. As a result, Heremias seems a tad derivative and falls a notch below the preceding and following films of the director. Where in later films he would fittingly cut after three or four seconds before and after a character enters or leaves the frame, here he provides a leeway of over a quarter minute, unnecessarily making the shots self-conscious (There is an hour-long fuzzy shot of Heremias watching a bunch of stoned teenagers partying, whose length, I believe, is not justified). But many of these shots are also highly rewarding and some even emotionally cathartic (for instance, the sublime shot where the light from Heremias’ lantern pierces the screen gradually). Ultimately, the film comes across as a minor, transitional (but nevertheless commendable) work that has a lot going for it thematically.