When the super typhoon Durian ripped through the rural Filipino area known as the Bicol in November 2006, one cannot help but have responded with a sense of déjà vu. Images of the wreckage and desolation wrought firstly by the Sri Lankan tsunami of 2004 and then hurricane Katrina in 2005, one could forgiven for thinking that the Book of Revelation was being writ in letters large enough to even impress C.B.de Mille. A fortnight after the first distressing scenes relayed around the world on CNN, director Lav Diaz journeyed to the Bicol region surrounding the village of Padang, the area where, but a few years earlier, he’d shot his docu-drama Evolution of a Filipino Family and where he’d also made Heremias. His original intention was to make a documentary, to film the devastation for himself. Interviews were conducted with various dispossessed, but still thankful to be alive, locals. Yet somehow the documentary wasn’t enough, he needed to express his feelings in a more narrative-focused way, so that though the interview footage was used intermittently through the piece, they would be merely footnotes to the piece.
The main story focuses on a poet, Benjamin Agusan, who has been living for several years in the Russian town of Kaluga and who, upon hearing about the tragedy, returns to his Bicol village to find out what happened to his parents and family. He finds that they are all dead, some buried alive, but he also meets up with two old friends; firstly his former lover, artist and sculptor Catalina, who he left over a decade earlier, and a fellow poet, Teodoro. All three have their spectres, corporeal or otherwise, and their recollections, ruminations and emotional traumas form the core of the film.
Like his other signature works, it’s a long haul, at nine hours too long for many, even those who like their fare way outside the realm of the mainstream multiplexes. As in the other films, characters don’t enter scenes, rather they become part of the overall landscape, so that rather than appearing off-left or –right, they are visible often only in the distance, sometimes moving towards the camera, sometimes merely across the field of vision. Right from the opening scene one feels almost displaced, moving from a desolate wasteland during a rainstorm to a naked woman inside a hut and back out to survey the devastation in a way eerily reminiscent of the probe-style camera of Snow’s La Région Centrale. In a strange way, as we watch characters move not from scene to scene but from camera shot to camera shot, one feels uneasily like detectives tracing a suspect’s movements on a succession of CCTV cameras. Sifting through the debris of both the landscape and their mind, the characters employ different coping mechanisms. Benjamin cannot bear to face his 10 year old son by Catalina and struggles to reach an erection during their reconciliatory sex. She tries to sculpt out of the lava rock as a way of taming nature, of getting her own back at the Mayon volcano whose infernal contents, triggered by the typhoon, caused the fatal landslides. Those interviewed have different opinions on the whys and wherefores, but in such a deeply religious place, the notion of God’s wrath was never far away, with the Ricol just another Santorini, Pompeii or Sodom. And amongst this, as the characters move trance-like from one almost silent scene to another, one is increasingly aware of an otherworldly quality which I was unable to put my finger on. As if unspoken, between the frames, one catches a glimpse when one presses rewind and the picture reverses on screen, we see the clouds move, even sunlight on a hillside, as if on a time lapse, characters mere dots in the ‘bigger picture’ and the viewer transported, all dialogue superfluous now. Writing for The Cinema Scope, Robert Koehler said “the only real way to be with Diaz’s cinema is to sit in a pitch-dark room and let the outside world peel and drop away.” Stressing again the ‘be with’ in that statement, it’s a masterpiece which, those with eye to see, makes you one with nature and the infinite.