There’s little I know of Philippine avant-garde director Lav Diaz’s elusive filmography other than it’s reputedly Béla Tarr-esque. You know, super long, incomprehensibly artsy-fartsy in a way that might piss (or scare) off the casual viewer. This is a special kind of cinema, a lot more extreme and demanding than, for instance, a Carlos Reygadas or a Hong Sang-soo because it’s stripped bare of anything resembling the mainstream. So coming into my first Diaz, Century of Birthing, all I did was doubt and seem apprehensive. But wouldn’t you know, six hours flew by like it’s no thing and I loved it (admittedly, I didn’t see this in one sitting but it still felt like a swift watch). In fact I prefer the film to anything Tarr has ever done because the message is clear and the characters are relatable and more interesting.
Century of Birthing is an enthralling, philosophically charged work that attempts to find answers to existential questions about life, religion, and art. It’s also a unique meditation on the filmmaking process, an intellectual discourse if you will, even touching upon the subject of the dreaded “p” word head-on. I can’t believe it has the gall to question what makes a movie pretentious and then to provide a concise, non-bullshit answer, which brings self-awareness in experimental cinema to a new light. This is an unusually chatty movie with ideas rife for discussion that it sometimes reminds me of a French New Wave film.
Furthermore, again unlike Tarr, Diaz puts extra emphasis on story and what he has here is a complex, powerfully written narrative. There are two main plot points that interweave much later on, although it’s like a clutter of unrelated scenarios in the early goings. The first concerns a Christian cult led by a religious fundamentalist and Diaz focuses on a young disciple known as the Virgin. When an outsider—an incredulous and inquisitive photographer—enters their little bubble, the Virgin’s worldview is shaken considerably.
The other story is about movie director Homer (who has pretty good taste as suggested by the What Time is it There? poster on his studio wall), unmistakably the cinematic conduit of the filmmaker himself, meta-telegraphing Diaz’s thoughts all the time. Homer is plagued by director’s block and refuses to release his long overdue movie because he’s unable to find “aesthetic fulfillment.” As a result, Homer’s unfinished work acts as a subplot and it tells the tale of Angela, a beautiful nun who abandoned her vows to explore the pleasures of the human body (which I think would’ve been an excellent stand-alone film). Binding these stories together is the characters’ struggle in search for existential truths.
Diaz’s directorial style is frugal, a no-frills approach using long, static compositions, digital video, black/white visuals, and diegetic sounds. This has practical implications but it also functions as a rebellious gesture against cinematic conventions. Languid takes and a lengthy runtime is Diaz’s way of saying he’s got free rein and he could do so much more with the materials he possess compared to his privileged peers in exploiting cinema’s possibilities. One of my favorite scenes is Angela’s childhood dream—the serene mountains on the background, her young self standing wistfully on the foreground while a band of water buffaloes crosses the river on the center; then suddenly all this is juxtaposed by a gruesome subsequent shot. Life imitates art as the Virgin later appears in a visually similar sequence, which follows a strenuously mesmerizing, Sátántangó-like tracking shot on a stairway up a steep hill.
My hope is that Diaz gets discovered by more viewers because the man’s undoubtedly a major visionary in today’s avant-garde scene. I won’t hesitate to call Century of Birthing as one of the decade’s best so far. As Homer would say, this ain’t just some “fucking art shit.”
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