Ox-driven carts full of native crafts line up at a concrete road. We painfully await each and every one of the caravans to finish their diagonal descent and disappear from Lav Diaz’s immobile frame. Ten minutes has passed by, then another fifteen of the same scene of nomadic crafts merchants travelling from one end of the screen to another. The amount of time forces you to observe the surroundings of the traveling group: You delight at the clouds who also move slowly from right to left, the wild grass swaying in relaxed abandon, the majestic view from atop the hill. Before you know it, you share with these crafts merchants the pristine value of time: since you have so much of it. At night, you listen to their songs over a bonfire, their tales of girlfriends throwing away their vows of love to leave with a Japanese man, their worries that their little ones might catch a fever. Diaz pleads you to take a few hours to immerse yourself with their lifestyle; it’s not exactly a harsh request as Diaz rewards you with beautiful scenery — the still scenes may be likened to black and white post cards of rural life in the Philippines.
Titular character Heremias (Ronnie Lazaro) suddenly wants to separate from the group. He actually has no reasons why; the fact that a super typhoon is hitting the country within a few days makes the decision more brash, irrational and dangerous. Alone, he wanders about aimlessly. At one junction. he again makes an irrational decision of opting for the dirt road rather than the safe and predictable cement road. His ox seems wary of Heremias’ choice of road, and needs to be pulled to the dirt road instead of driven comfortably. The typhoon arrives — we actually feel its power (the non-stop downpour of rain, the frequent thunders, the deafening wail of the wind). Heremias and his ox take shelter at an abandoned building by the dirt road. The next morning, he finds his cart and his ox gone.
Lav Diaz’s nine-hour masterpiece Heremias is only the first part of two films. If anything, it’s one lengthy prelude to the main narrative. The main character is mostly an aimless character. It’s quite difficult to grasp anything from the character as his interactions are mostly bare and pointless. Midway the film, we learn more about the film’s geographic setting than the character. We learn that Barrio Hapon (the area wherein Heremias loses his ox and cart) was named so because it became a haven for Japanese stragglers after the Pacific War. Heremias’ night companions detail how a certain Oshima was executed by military officials for being a vicious soldier during the Japanese occupation; the other companion debate on whether Oshima was really kindhearted or evil. On a bus stopover, the bus driver details to Heremias how a town called Prinsesa Bayawak (Princess Lizard) got its name; that a couple’s daughter was taken away and was never to be found again, and in her stead, a lizard who can tell whether a visitor is of good or bad nature arrives.
When Heremias re-unites with his merchant companions and tell them how his wares got stolen, and how inutile and corrupt the local policeman was, one of his companions begin to tell another tale of how a woman was able to catch her husband’s murderer by returning to the crime scene. Thus, Heremias again separates from his group to return to the abandoned house, hiding himself efficiently in the forests to begin a lengthy observation of passers-by. The observation culminates when a gang of teenagers arrive and start popping drugs, drinking, vandalizing, and throwing profanities. When the effects of the alcohol, the drugs, and the hype have died, they start plotting to rape a girl. All this, Heremias has witnessed, and like the biblical prophet of the same name, started to go about town telling first, the police, then the priest, of what is about to happen. His warnings are unheeded mostly because the supposed perpetrators are relatives of a high-ranking and dangerous government official. His last resort was God, and pleads to save the girl in return for his sacrifice to walk and fast for forty days.
It’s quite hard to empathize with Heremias’ situation. Diaz’s visuals doesn’t allow for close-ups, Ronnie Lazaro can only do much with bodily gestures and moans of supposed anguish. Yet with all the stylized distance Diaz reserves for his beloved character, there is this one point in the film that an unadulterated emotion aches with so much power, that it surpasses almost everything. Right after being driven away for merely wanting to save the girl, right after being punished physically and psychologically for his new-found knowledge, he struggles painfully within the darkly-lit and rain-drenched forest. Diaz makes you suffer with him; the same way he allowed you to feel how it is to die painfully in Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004). Amidst the blanketing greys (this is most probably a technical effect, rather than an artistic one — Diaz never makes use of artificial lighting), we hear Heremias pleas to God (who is mostly absent from the film save for a few acknowledgments, mostly gathered from the Philippines being a traditional Catholic nation) and an occasional glance at his desperate face gathering bits of light making it distinguishable to the careful eye. At that moment in the film, Heremias finally bares his soul to us — the effect is powerful and tremendous; it’s almost akin to Faust dealing with the devil, but in this case, it’s the exact opposite, Heremias transforms into a selfless individual and makes a contract with God.
A question arises: Is Heremias’ sacrifice a useless one? Is there a God who would make true his end of the bargain? Diaz never really answers the question, or if he will, we’d have to wait another year (Diaz is currently shooting the second part of the film), and a few more hours of his meditative filmmaking, to know. In my opinion, despite the obvious absence of a God in the film, there is indeed a predestined design to have Heremias land in that particular situation. Heremias’ sudden anxiety and discomfort with his life’s transient nature, his decision against all notions of logic to separate from his group, the strong typhoons, those shared tales that discuss the distinguishable and the indistinguishable natures of goodness and evil, the tale of the woman who discovers her husband’s murderer, Heremias’ role as the world’s solitary observer: all these were carefully placed to land the reactionary character in that moment wherein he would have to bet his life to ease that fate-driven burden of guilt knowing that a girl is about to be raped and killed. By a mile, this is probably this year’s best film.