Lav Diaz’s “Heremias” (2006) is 540 minutes long, an hour shy of the length of “Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino” (“Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), presently the record holder of the title “longest single Filipino feature”–but then this picture is only part one, titled, or so I’m told, “Book 1: The Legend of the Lizard Princess.” “Ebolusyon” spanned a broad canvas, featuring not just the story of two families (rice farmers in Tarlac, wood gatherers aspiring to become gold miners in the Benguet Province), but the recent history of the Philippines as represented in a series of documentary footage, from Marcos’ declaration of martial law in 1972 to the EDSA Revolt in 1986 to the massacre of the farmers on Mendiola Bridge in 1987. Along the way Diaz stuffed the film full of all kinds of conceits, from film critic Gino Dormiendo playing Lino Brocka in a series of televised interviews to a plot to assassinate Brocka (?!) to a series of hilariously melodramatic radio broadcasts that the families listen to religiously, as if at Sunday Mass. “Heremias” is radically different–it’s the odyssey of one man (Ronnie Lazaro) from his village to the city and back; more, it’s his journey from a state of absolute innocence to knowledge, disillusionment, guilt.
Diaz had told me once that he was interested in making a film about these people–traveling peasants who pile their covered wagons high with bits of handicrafts (rocking chairs, brooms, baby walkers, and so forth), make their painfully slow way into town, and sell their wares for remarkably low prices (you wonder: if their products are so cheap, how much did these people spend acquiring–or making–them?); here is the film he talked about, in all its implacable glory. For a time we see nothing but Heremias and his wagon, pulled by an ox (we get to know the animal quite well), rolling from one end of the screen to another; the road–dirt as often as asphalt, stretching past hills and trees and houses–often forms a diagonal on which the small figure and his wheeled vehicle amble (slowly, slowly) along. At one point a typhoon rages while the wagon goes down a forest path–diagonally situated, as usual, this time from right to lower left–and we wait for the wagon to reach the path’s nearer end before Diaz cuts, as he’s done so often before. Suddenly a sapling falls across the way; the path is blocked; the slow and steady motion we have come to expect from so many hours’ variation on this particular composition cannot be completed–cannot be fulfilled, if you will. We watch in mounting frustration as Heremias gets off the wagon, chops the sapling up, pushes it out of the way; eventually he manages to clear the path, climb back onboard, move the wagon forward until it reaches the lower left corner of the screen, and you’re almost thrilled at the accomplishment.
(That scene and the ones following–endless images of whipping wind and whirling rain–makes one wonder: did Diaz use several firetrucks with an infinite supply of water, or did he just shoot in an actual typhoon? The latter is perfectly possible, having an idea of Diaz’s style of filmmaking and the budgets with which he usually works—he once ordered a shoot in the middle of a blizzard in “Batang West Side” (West Side Avenue, 2001), to the chagrin of his largely Manila-based crew).
When Heremias stops at an abandoned house near the town (called Barrio Hapon in the film), his ox and wagon are stolen; he goes wandering about the nearby forest, squatting silently in the undergrowth, watching the house in the hope that whoever stole the animal will somehow come back. At this point a group of teenagers arrives; Heremias listens to them drinking and yelling and urinating (often writing their names on the already vandalized walls); after a while the effect of booze and drugs seem to vanish, and they discuss in earnest the kidnapping, raping, and killing of a girl.
Much of this scene is captured in a single shot almost an hour long, where the camera (assuming Heremias’ point of view) squates behind the leaves of a nearby plant and watches the young men in their profane and casually brutal talk. We remember how skillful Diaz was at writing the stoned dialogue of Filipino-American addicts in “Batang West Side,” how they seemed so funny, even hilarious, until they turned murderously psychotic; here, Heremias has no choice but to cower and hide (the leaves trembling for him) while the youths yell and shriek.
When the teenagers go, they leave Heremias with a considerable burden: what to do with his newfound knowledge? Diaz’s names for his various characters are never randomly chosen; they often have an allegorical function. Heremias comes from Jeremiah, one of the Bible’s three major prophets, much of whose career was characterized by the fact that few people listened to him. Heremias is not lying, nor does he have any real trouble getting people to believe him; it’s just that the gang’s leader is the son of a powerful politician who owns the town, and anyone getting involved would be in serious danger.
The rest of the film is in marked contrast with the first half, withthe teenagers’ drunken night (an allusion to Walpurgis Night, perhaps, where witches revel and youths go about playing all kinds of harmful pranks?) dividing the two pieces. Diaz’s camera shifts from passive onlooker to mute witness of Heremias’ increasing distress, the lighting scheme going from daylight gray to nighttime glare to a kind of pitiless clarity; Heremias’ shuffle has if anything become slower, his back stooped even lower. We watch as he finds himself every bit as helpless with the girl as he was when his ox and wagon were stolen.
Which brings us to the question: does “Heremias” justify its extreme length? Diaz apparently finds nothing wrong in applying such intense focus on an ordinary character; if anything, the character is made extraordinary by said focus (Diaz either subscribes to the notion that anyone is of inherent interest (we just need to look hard enough), or that anything the camera looks upon is interesting (we just need to train the camera on it long enough)). After what felt like hours of watching Heremias’ ox pull his wagon, I felt the man’s sensibility had seeped into my head, that I was counting minutes much the same way as he does (drip after drip, by the gradual liter), that I was a simple peasant walking under sun and sky, looking at a world often harmful and depraved, eventually learning that things can be so very much worse.
It’s important to keep in mind that “Heremias” is just the first half of a film, that Diaz is even now busily planning to shoot the second half, reportedly in part about the forty days of walking and fasting Heremias promises to undergo, if only God will save the girl. Though narrower in scope I think this first half (a nine-hour film on the problems of one man) is a braver experiment than “Ebolusyon;” unlike “Ebolusyon,” which veered wildly from 16 mm to video camera to documentary footage (much of the time, thanks to dire budget constraints, without rhyme or reason in the shift between mediums), “Heremias” is visually of a piece; if the film’s tone shifts (from ultra-realist to diabolical) it’s according to the filmmaker’s intentions and the needs of the story. The film was a struggle to watch, especially the first hour, but I’m hooked; I badly need to learn what happens next.