Lav Diaz’s intentions in Siglo ng Pagluluwal are evident and grand — what is not if you are trying to expound on the definition of cinema and tackle the superficiality of religion! From these objectives spring several threads waiting, it seems, for their designated turn to unspool in that 6-hour length scheme of things. A filmmaker, beset with artistic deadlock, thus unable to finish shooting a film, swirls into self-evaluation and depression. As if this is not enough, an incident happens to a friend, and this sends him further down the drain. A cult, which propagates itself as the house of God and believing of a linkage between virginity and salvation, disowns a pioneer after getting raped. The victim unable to face the consequences goes, well, you should know what happens next. Then, there is a nun trying to search for, uhm, meaning – oh, just like each one of us!
Each of the main threads is already a film unto itself, and that Diaz tried anchoring them all in one film is, at the very least, admirable. What he misses though is the expert hemming: Siglo unfolds the threads in chunks, concentrating on one in an hour or so and leaving it off for the other in the next, and so on, rather than creatively weaving the strands together, seamlessly, parallel until the end. This makes it feel not only separate and standalone, just pulled into one bowl, but also episodic and segmented, especially that the span of the fragments is hourly.
Even the way stories were tied up feels, what, clumsily arrived at? The meeting of two characters at a decapitated shed, finally, is symbolic, yes, but feels less of a thematic roundup than just a physical intersection of characters, an abrupt wrap up of just two arcs, with the rest left hanging.
And performances, too, are not Diaz’s forte most of the time. His films are, or rather Siglo is, peopled with characters less the characterizations, and even lesser subtlety — and big on out-of-this-world creatures (the cult founder, his right hand, the one dimensional photographer, the naïve-to-the-end cult members, etc). Most of his characters seem plagued with poeticism, if not are suffering poets. One even came straight from Ricky Lee’s factory, a nun urging an ex-convict to, please, fuck me, like she is begging for dear life.
There is an attempt at showing the inner persona of the filmmaker, a not-a-deadline filmmaker that is, by ushering us into his film titled Babae ng Hangin, which he is having a hard time finishing; but the work-in-progress doesn’t contribute much to the fleshing out of his inner demons: why the cunctation, and why that severe! If depression is the culprit, where are the triggers? And probably because Babae ng Hangin’s point and story are regardless of the filmmaker’s present predicament?
Joel Torre and Soliman Cruz turn in olympian performances, showing what capabilities they have as actors, er, as performers. Their renderings are effortful rather than effortless; the acting na acting scenes, founded on half baked characterizations – may be due in part to their roles as cultist? (but why the condescending stance on cult?) – reek of futility than convincing turns. Their only true moment is when they exchange beliefs: “This is the house of virgins!” Joel is stern and sure; “this is the house of God,” Soliman snaps back in disagreement. The first time the right hand stood his ground in his master’s face, and the first time you see his character’s realness against the falseness of the environment he is in. And this has to happen right after Joel’s kilometric moment-ko-to monologue (Soliman has his showcase too, few scenes before) – all these in one sequence, imagine my reception from being turned off to being swayed in no time! The bad aspect and the good aspect, side by side each other, for the audience to see.
Siglo’s characters are either these mentioned, or just mouthpieces of Diaz himself. There is one cringe-fest scene, the interview scene, with video recording camera and all, wherein the interviewer asks the interviewee, the filmmaker himself, “What is cinema?” Cliché disclaimers such as “I really don’t know” are followed by namedropping and overzealous punctuations so that not even halfway through it you suddenly remember Boy Abunda! Yes, Lav Diaz is channeling Boy Abunda with his magic mirror, his self interviewing himself, and himself answering back obligingly, masturbating-ly, on what is the meaning of cinema, on what he knows about cinema thus far, technical jargons and the like included. Neat, and you tend to ask, since when is showing off better than dramatization?
What Siglo’s salvation against these flaws is Lav Diaz’s committed resolve to shun commercial viability and instead insist on sticking to his brand of aesthetics. The long, organic takes, the landscape full shots, the deliberate pace. Diaz’s monolith, you either agree with or shy away from. His strength is pulling us right into the scene by letting the nature help evoke the place: crickets heralding the night, gushing of wind, sound of leaves swaying, of rain pouring, etc. The result is experiential journey accentuated by the length of the passage (read: physical length of the film).
The film’s finest moments are when Diaz doesn’t force his point across, when he lets the filmmaker (Perry Dizon) and his friend (Angeli Agbayani) be, meeting in unadorned places – by a convenience store, at the corner, at the park – and share each daily happenings like normal friends do. It is when the characters come alive and real. It is during these times that we become eye-witness to breathing individuals, being themselves, lonely and wounded, burdened by life’s gravity.
In Siglo, what Diaz cannot achieve (defining cinema, religion, faith) he more than makes up for with baring of these suffering souls. The length he goes just to lay bare open what is hardly tangible (loneliness, alienation) is commendable, and the result indelible and lingering. And that makes you almost forgive the glaring lapses of his execution.
Mr Diaz, it is not your aesthetics! It is your heart. That got me.