Set prior to a fracture in history, Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before tracks lives in a small village in the Philippines during the three-year run-up to then-president Ferdinand Marcos’ placing the country under martial law in 1972. The film reflects on the passing of a simpler epoch — complete with its emphasis on traditional rituals, relationships and values — and articulates an indictment of the emerging cynicism that would define a generation of go-getters holding the reins of power in the subsequent decades.
But the title could also be a reference to Diaz himself. After last year’s comparatively compact, in-color Cannes entry Norte, The End of History — which went beyond the now de rigueur festival round by actually securing commercial distribution in both the U.S. and Britain — From What Is Before signals a return to the aesthetics the filmmaker has made his own: It’s filmed in beautiful black-and-white, has a static but meticulously designed mise-en-scene and clocks in at over five and a half hours. The film is also the product of a bare-bones crew, some of whom also play important parts in the film.
But From What Is Before, which makes its international bow in competition at Locarno on Aug. 7, also defies some of the traits that many have come to expect of Diaz’s form of slow cinema. Whereas there are still long takes aplenty, most of them startlingly exquisite, the film feels, for once, very urgent in relaying the faultlines of real Filipino history. While Norte is more a metaphor about Marcos and his near-fascist legacy dressed up as a crime-and-punishment tale, From What Is Before is set in a distinct era with characters actually discussing (and dealing with) real politics.
Marcos is nearly omnipresent, whether in conversation (a priest questioning a soldier about whether he believes in the dictator-to-be), in pictures (portraits of him and his wife, Imelda, abound), in sound (with a recording of his live broadcast about the proclamation of military rule) and of course in spirit (in terms of the cynicism that drives this film’s anti-heroes, just like it does in Norte with sociopathic lead character Fabian). While unlikely to secure the mainstream exposure of Norte, From What Is Before deserves just as much of a sustained presence on the festival circuit, maybe packaged as a prequel of sorts to the epic family dramas of Norte.
Or maybe From What Is Before could also be seen as Diaz’s (and the Philippines’) answer to The White Ribbon. Like Michael Haneke’s suspenseful Germany-set drama, Before’s locale boasts traditions (of a more spiritual kind, in the shape of healers and musical wakes for the dead) and morals slowly eclipsed by mysterious deadly deeds in town: cows (and then a feeble pensioner) being hacked to death, houses being burnt down and ghostly wails from the forests.
There are hints of who’s behind this — the sight of a machete here, the pattering of urchins’ feet there — but the true culprit is the social climate enabling this decadence. As the older generation looks on, through the eyes of farmhand Sito (Perry Dizon), beleaguered priest Guido (Joel Saracho) and the homecoming Horacio (Noel Sto. Domingo), things deteriorate as if to prove that the present and the future are no country for old men.
Meanwhile, young interlopers engage in destructive behavior. Itang (Hazel Orencio) forces his mentally challenged sister Joselina (Karenina Haniel) to conduct painful healing sessions so as to earn a living. Hakob (Reynan Abcede), Sito’s helper and surrogate son, takes to selling weapons on the sly to make enough money to visit his absent parents. Peddling blankets and mosquito nets around the village, Heding (Angelina Kanapi) takes to snooping and spreading rumors. And young winemaker Tony (Roeder Campanag) concocts stories about the love behind his assaults on Joselina.
True to its title, however, there’s still some kind of closure (deadly, deserved or otherwise) for all this wrongdoing in a bygone age when karma may still exist — including for the antagonists, who are forced to contend with soldiers proclaiming a curfew and then taking over the village. The squadron leader, Lieutenant Perdido (Ian Lomongo), stern yet also soft-spoken, is willing to converse with the villagers to placate their anxiety, and displays an awareness of circumstances as he speaks of being “a student of history.”
These tightly-scripted conversations and full-fleshed characterizations complement the heartbreaking beauty of the imagery. Toward the end of the film, a body floats downriver as a voiceover (possibly standing in for Diaz, who has described this film as an adaptation of his own recollections) speaks of how all this is the “memory of a cataclysm.”
While not exactly a full-fledged magnum opus, From What Is Before hints at a new direction combining an unhurried visual pace and a more dramatic, forceful approach in tackling history and politics.