Lito Zulueta

Melancholia: Philippine cinema as meditation and metaphysics

Lav Diaz’s Melancholia provides a sweeping fillip and summing-up to the aesthetics he has stubbornly maintained and that has always baffled audiences. A mordant movie that is part pastorale, part meditation, and part social commentary, there is no other film like it, except for the previous movies he has done— sweeping narrative movies that seem determined to break the standard idea of a regular feature movie that’s all but told in just 90 minutes more or less.

But unlike in his previous movies where the narrative seems a recasting of the picaresque, “Melancholia,” Diaz dispenses with the narrative trajectory altogether, leaving the viewer on tenterhooks but still with a modicum of familiarity with its most basic story line revolving around three characters—a hooker, a pimp and a nun. All of them seem wounded by grief over the deaths of communist rebel friends who had been dashed and killed either by the insurgency conflict or by natural calamity. Everyone is held by the memory of death and destruction.

All of eight hours, “Melancholia” is an extended mining of memories and insights, the masochism of the exercise somehow alleviated by the contemplative mood and the sprawling bucolic romp that’s vintage Lav Diaz iconology. Some among the viewers may impatiently complain that Diaz should have shown rather than told, but the aesthetic he has mastered along this line shirks any postcard-pretty representation: if there’s any image-making here, it is more of an evocation, the tracing of an aura that hovers between reality and unreality.

After all, how does one really deal with pain and suffering? If violence and death are as perennial as the grass—as unerringly present in the evergreen forests as they are a regular in the headlines of metropolitan newspapers—how does one cope with them? In the world of Lav Diaz, death is no respecter of geographies or political causes: one meets it in both the urban jungle and the rural sprawl, one dies because of a calamity of nature or a calamity of conflict, and those left behind are left with the destiny of grasping and groping for meaning in the midst of the utter meaninglessness of it all. “Melancholia” is not a mood, it’s a movie of meaning and worth; it’s a cinema of powerful signification.