Lav Diaz’s Melancholia is an eight-hour meditation of sorts on the maddening persistence of sadness in this world, can logically be divided into three parts and an epilogue. The first part details the experiences in Sagada of Julian (Perry Dizon), Alberta (Angeli Bayani) and Rina (Malaya Cruz) as they refashion themselves into different drastic identities as part of the radical process that Julian created in order for them to cope with the losses of their loved ones. The second part is set in Manila, with Julian and Alberta living their real lives and addressing the scenarios and situations that accompany their melancholic predicament. The third part is the prologue to Julian, Alberta and Rina’s prolonged tale of sadness, where deep within the forests of Mindoro, a band of leftist fighters, which includes Alberta’s husband Renato (Roeder Camanag), is struggling with the psychological and spiritual torture of both practical and existential defeat while being hunted down by military operatives.
Melancholia is most probably Diaz’s most difficult film for the lone reason that Diaz affords little or no comfort to his viewers. There is very little humor to the film and the story, grounded by philosophies and ideas that might be too personal or hard to grasp, branches into different and sometimes convoluted directions. However, as with most of Diaz’s films, the reward of completing one is not in the pleasure of sitting through eight hours of his trademark black and white aesthetics and seemingly endless ramblings and conversations, but in the lingering and often valid points that Diaz would have you digesting and exploring for a far longer period of time.
Transformations and Transgressions in Sagada
Alberta becomes Jenine, a prostitute who does massages for 300 pesos and other services for more. Julian turns into a pimp who for the right price can stage live sex shows within the privacy of a hotel room. Rina is a Catholic nun who wanders around town with her charity basket, begging for money for charity. They would bump into each other on occasions: with Jenine handily getting some change to put into the nun’s charity basket before fleeting away to her destination, or the pimp taking photographs of the nun before mouthing slogans about the futility of living in a country and a world that is practically hell, or Jenine being courted by the pimp to do business for him. In Sagada, they do not know each other. Though in reality, they are all survivors who have subscribed to the extremist idea that in order to cope with the fact of having a loved one disappear and be presumed dead, they should shed their identities and see the world through the eyes of another.
The three would eventually meet at the same time as the three of them seek shelter from the rain inside an abandoned building in the middle of the town. The line that separates truth and fiction are blurred, as Jenine and the pimp recount their respective histories as if the personalities they inhabited are real. It may be argued that fictionalizing one’s life story may be an easy feat. However, it is the disturbing direction of their conversation when the nun arrives in the abandoned building that gives the prolonged scene a harrowing distinction. The pimp starts cornering the nun, berating her of the futility of her efforts within the spectrum of evil that has consumed the world. In the background, Jenine is amused at the lopsided confrontation, wherein the nun coyly mutters meaningless quotes while the pimp expounds on the the world’s state of hopelessness. Defeated, the nun escapes the scene as the two admitted sinners rejoice in their triumph.
The nun is the only one to surrender and give up. It seems that in a world that has been enveloped by sadness, it is the meek, and pure that fall first as victims. In Rina’s transformation as a nun, she has seen the world from the vantage point of innocence, and the continuing acts of evildoing, apathy, and madness may have dealt upon her despair and hopelessness. Her transformation seems easiest as compared to being a whore or a pimp, since it seems less taxing to roam the streets begging for alms. However, the transgression in her existence, upon seeing the state of the world through the eyes of a person who was tasked to save it or at least ease its pain and being unable to do anything, is far more damaging. Her transformation deviates the most from the world. Her assumed identity is an aberration, especially in a landscape that has forgotten virtues.
Diaz posits an intriguing concept: that survival is earned by those who swear allegiance with truth, and truth is what we see in this world: melancholia, death, amorality, and atheism. There is truth in sex, the way the pimp’s sex performers copulate in the total absence of love, hate, or any other emotion. There is truth in prostitution, the way our bodies have turned into mere commodities and stripped of any religion-labeled value. The nun, at one point of the segment, visits a widowed mother she had the opportunity to converse with while begging for alms. Inside the church, the mother sings a melody while the nun observes in the background before leaving. Outside, she walks away, answers her phone and tells her friend that she is okay. During that moment, upon being exposed the utter futility of faith, she finds a semblance of comfort, although temporary since later, she would take her own life in a final act of despair.
2. Patricia’s Song
Diaz forwards the story further, detailing the lives of Julian and Alberta weeks after their stints as pimp and whore, respectively, in Sagada. Julian is a publisher in Manila who often dreams of her dead wife Patricia (Cooky Chua). Alberta, on the other hand, is a school principal who while coping with the disappearance of her husband, has to take care of her ward Hannah (Yanyan Taa), a teenager who was rendered parentless when both her parents were abducted and killed by government officials. Hannah, to address her situation, repels Alberta’s acts of kindness by repeatedly escaping from her protection and prostituting herself.
Julian chats with an old friend (Bodjie Pascua), an author who pitches his manuscript for publication. In their conversation about the story of Julian’s friend’s book, Diaz expounds his passion for cinema, correlating his philosophies on truth with art. According to the friend (whose language is not dissimilar to Diaz’s), our basic concept of Philippine cinema has been grounded on lies and escapism. The only way to dispel this harmful imposition against culture is through a drastic change, fueled by pain and passion as the main character of the book, a famed director who after losing his lover, reforms into a producer of independent films while acknowledging his homosexuality, has gone through.
In Julian’s dream, Patricia sings of her endless search against the backdrop of coldness and pain in the world. The song sets the mood and tone of the film. In a sense, the song summarizes the characters’ need to search: for their lost loved ones, for a reason behind the sadness and the madness of the world, an impossible happiness or contentment, for Hannah, for truth. Melancholia’s landscape is familiar (city streets, humble abodes, riverside parks), but its characters are placed in a situation where they have turned into desperate searchers, fueled at first by grief and longing and then by some other force or motivation that is as elusive as their targets. The repercussions of their exercise in Sagada are faint (although Rina’s suicide becomes the trigger of Julian’s deep contemplation) if not damaging as opposed to being the cure to their collective sadness. Even the discovery of the remains of some victims of political killings failed to release them from their collective burdens. In the end, they are still looking for sense and direction and all at once, the familiar places start to look like alien landscapes, enunciated by the violence of the rain or the discomfort of the night. These places convert into limbo.
This persistent searching is true to the theme of Diaz’s cinema, which would often allude to some kind of redemption or release in the conclusion, whether it be in the form of Juan Mijares’ acceptance of his and his nation’s past in Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001), or the wayward oxcart-driver’s deal with God in Heremias (2006), or Hamin’s release from the world’s madness through death in Kagadanan sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007). However, in Melancholia, the characters are trapped in limbo (in fact, an offshoot of Melancholia which makes use of some footage made for the film is aptly entitled Purgatorio (2008), referring to the eternal state of being neither here or there of the family left behind by the victims of political killings) and are seemingly in a directionless search for something that can never be found.
3. No Redemption for the Poet-Warrior
Renato writes in his diary “Why is there so much sadness and too much sorrow in this world? Is happiness just a concept? Is living just a process to measure man’s pain? Are we ever going to see each other again? I’m not afraid of death. I’m more afraid that I won’t see you again.'” Renato, a leftist activist who left his wife to fight a war of principles, is now being chased into the forest by military operatives who want him and his comrades silenced.
Diaz painstakingly details the final few days of this band of men who are merely prolonging their assured demise under their enemies. Some of them start to falter, giving way to insanity and defeat, enveloped by the lurking senselessness of their struggle amidst a world drowned by indifference and apathy. He writes further “I now realized the lyrical madness to this struggle. It is all about sadness. It is about my sadness. It is about the sorrow of my people. I cannot romanticize the futility of it all. Even the majestic beauty of this island could not provide an answer to this hell. There is no cure to this sadness.”
Renato writes words of despair. Strangled by his impending capture and death, he starts to rationalize the bitter truth that beneath the illusions and promises dealt by momentous beauty, emotions, and moments of fleeting happiness, is a world that is barren and replete of hope. His and his comrades’ deaths come swiftly in a moment where one of them, in an act of desperation, expresses surrender. Their deaths did not release them from purgatory. Instead, as we have learned from the film’s previous scenes in Sagada and Manila, their deaths are black holes that pull loved ones into a void, a metaphoric limbo where they undergo futile searches for logic and reason, goals that have been rendered implausible by the realities of pain and suffering in this world .
The sequence in the forest does not provide redemption for Alberta either. She still does not know where her husband’s remains were left. She has not read the words Renato has written in his diary. All she knows is that her husband is gone and most probably dead. There is yet no closure for the victims, only closure in Diaz’s circle of melancholia, where the man-made, or more accurately, governmental act of depravity and cowardice has caused the never-ending cycle of sadness and madness to begin.
The riverside park at nighttime, dimly lit by streetlamps that scarcely dot the walkpath, serves as Diaz’s stage for his confounding finale. Alberta searches for Julian among the men and women (performance artists who contort their bodies into unusual shapes and positions) that populate the park’s spaces. Cryptic phrases, recited in hypnotic cadence, are thrown in reply to Alberta’s fervent questioning. She finally locates Julian, alone and seated in the dark, dissheveled in appearance and obviously in the same trance-like state of the park’s curious residents. From Alberta and Julian’s conversation, we can glean that Julian has turned into a monster, consumed by his own search for the truth, eaten up by the pain and sadness that he has tried to cope with, and ironically, embraced it to create. Julian has become God, the personification of the melancholy and insanity of the world, the only things that can be labeled as definite truths in a world that deceives us with illusions of joy and beauty. He walks away, claiming that he is no longer Julian. Alberta is left alone.
Although the film can be seen as Diaz’s definitive statement (and it probably is, Diaz being very vocal on politics) on the desaparecidos, the numbers of which have risen during Macapagal-Arroyo’s term as president, and the families they have left in stasis, there is definitely something deeper: a philosophical or existential query that Diaz throws to his viewers on the basis of the world’s current status. Melancholia aims to expound on truth by distorting it (where Julian, Alberta and Rina assume fake identities in Sagada as coping mechanism to battle their sadness), disrespecting it (where the trio start living and believing their assumed identities), mutating it (where the trio can no longer discern the line that divides reality and illusion), and finally, spiting it (where truth, as personified by Julian, shows itself as pitiful and pathetic).