There are few filmmakers, local or foreign, who can best capture the nuances of rain, and one of the chosen purveyors of this aspect of cinematic chill and isolation is Lavrente Diaz, whose latest black and white epic, the six-hour Siglo ng Pagluluwal (Century of Birthing) has more than its share of downpours, the slow patient drip of melancholy.
It is a given that one should have patience, even perseverance and determination when viewing a Diaz film, but if one stays the course — yes, even by installment — the rewards are indeed plenty, as his growing cult of followers will likely tell you. You’ve heard this before but the director has returned cinema back to the hands of the filmmaker, which is just as well because it should be in no one else’s hands. The recent controversy where director Tikoy Aguiluz disowned the award-winning Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story because of undue intervention and interference by the producers should serve as a lesson for all cineastes: filmmaking is an art in which the director is the creator and thus has the final say, and talk that cinema is a collaborative art — while true to some extent — cannot be used as an excuse to tinker with a movie behind the director’s back. That is why there is such thing as a director’s cut, which more often than not is a longer but better version of the one put out in theaters.
Fortunately for Lavrente, he has no use for big time producers who would likely take shortcuts with the labyrinths of his visual discourse. Sure, many is the time the viewer will wonder if a particular scene would have worked better if pared down a bit, but then it would be wise to allow the director his devices and freedom of expression — we are anyway free to take it or leave it. Let the footage stew in its blurbs a-brewing, mesmerizing is this painting come to life!
The narrative of Siglo ng Pagluluwal works on three levels: about a procrastinating director (Perry Dizon) who is finding it difficult to finish a long-running film with two working titles, Woman of Wind and Corporal Histories, that stars Angel Aquino; actual footage of the film in progress that has Aquino as a nun who has disposed of her habit wanting to explore the ways of the world and who befriends a criminal on furlough (Bart Guingona); all this intertwined with the parallel story of the cult of Amang Tiburcio (Joel Torre) and his loyal followers including a lead acolyte among virgins (Hazel Orencio) and a philosopher (Soliman Cruz), the idyll rudely interrupted by a nosey photographer (Roeder Camañag).
This three-headed hydra, if it be called, all comes together eventually in a symphony of madness and rainfall, the director perhaps suggesting that Philippine cinema, if it is to survive such things as the Metro Manila film festival, has to be reborn in the middle of a field under an open sky, its mother no less than a madwoman.
Lavrente, as in his past works, shows evidence of bipolarity, long breathtaking visual scenes where only the camera does the talking alternating with conversational one-on-one between characters, the discourse taking a quite literal level. Again the impatient might argue, show don’t tell, but even the dialogue is never static; despite the camera being fixed at table level the viewer is made to ponder such rolling counterpoints: thesis, anti-thesis, photosynthesis where the video screen sprouts branches and blooms before your very eyes.
The theme song of the cult of Amang Tiburcio serves as a chorus and refrain for the entire film: “Tayong lahat ay pupunta/ sa tahanan ni Ama.“ All of us are going to the Father’s house, indeed. Played on acoustic guitar, the song works its way to the deeper layers of the subconscious until you find yourself humming it at the oddest hours, even to the very end where the procrastinating director, who may or not be an alter ego, crosses paths with the madwoman who fell from grace with Tiburcio’s cult, and the tune becomes a travesty, a beautiful loser reeling in the years.
It is never easy watching a Lav Diaz film, but Siglo at six hours is more manageable than the nine-hour Death in the Land of Encantos or 11-hour Ebolusyon ng Pamilyang Pilipino. After the hour-long Butterflies Have No Memories from 2010, the director is back to his epic ways. In an interview many years ago, Diaz mentioned the Russian director Tarkovsky as one of his lasting influences, and here we can appreciate the usual careful craft of composition and the sight of things breaking in black and white. One might say that the director’s approach is perhaps European in terms of film language, but the subject is still distinctly, unavoidably Filipino.
Like his other films, Siglo is not for the squeamish. There are bloody scenes of rape and genital mutilation, slashing of throats and tattooed criminals hung upside down while a torturer sits nearby coolly smoking a cigarette. But when credits roll as well they should, and the patient viewer sees that the film is dedicated to the memory of the late critic Alexis Tioseco and his girlfriend Nika Bohinc, murdered one September years ago while across town writers were celebrating an awards night, this birthing washes over us like an unseasonal downpour, brought by climate change or whatever, the filmmaker as rainmaker calling out the deluge.