IN A RAIN-DRENCHED FILIPINO TOWN, three lonely figures seek some measure of redemption or, short of that, somewhere dry enough to smoke a cigarette. Jenine is a prostitute who’s new to Sagada, which may explain her lack of street savvy. A pimp who arranges live sex shows for voyeuristic clients, Danny is a slick talker but not half as cool as he pretends. Completing the trio is a nameless nun who gamely solicits “charity for the poor” from all who come her way, albeit to little avail.
Given that viewers of Lav Diaz’s latest feature will have nearly eight hours to spend with these characters, it’s not surprising that their identities are far slippier than these stark first impressions imply. The winner of the best feature prize in the Horizons sidebar at the Venice film festival last year, Melancholia (2008) has its North American premiere at Cinematheque Ontario on March 29. An alternately serene and disconcerting drama whose themes range from the instability of self to the ramifications of radicalism, it’s another powerful example of the (very) long-form aesthetic that has made Diaz simultaneously one of the most revered and least seen new filmmakers of the past decade.
Since turning to cinema in the late 1990s after stints as a journalist in the Philippines and the US, the fifty-year-old director has produced an enormous volume of feature film and documentary work; for Diaz, though, the boundary between fiction and nonfiction is a porous one.
Melancholia is marginally more manageable than his nine-hour Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and the almost-eleven-hour Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004). But conventional concepts of time tend not to apply here. The long stretches of apparent stasis disguise the sophistication and intricacy of detail present within Diaz’s avidly novelistic style of narrative. His canny use of ambient sound and the visual richness of his preferred format of black-and-white high-definition video also make for a remarkably immersive viewing experience. That’s especially true of the jungle scenes that dominate Melancholia’s final hours, which are grueling enough to make the in-country slog in Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part 2 (2008) seem like a gentle stroll.
We feel less like observers than travelers on the same path. No wonder Melancholia evokes such a feeling of liberation during the occasional eruptions of noise, as when Diaz himself plays guitar in the free-jazz freak-out that occurs somewhere in hour 6. The final emergence from the dark and pain-filled world of Diaz’s characters feels just as revelatory.