Although Lav Diaz’s artistry is formidable, the first thing anyone ever mentions about his films is their prodigious length: the longest, 2004′s Evolution of a Filipino Family, clocks in at eleven and a half hours. Waggish aficionados refer to last year’sNorte, the End of History as his short — it’s just over four hours long. Apart from the attendant notoriety, this renders Diaz’s films extremely rare. With the exception of Norte, which was picked up for distribution in the US, UK and France, the only chance of seeing his work is at festivals and special screenings.
Whenever one of these occasions comes around, cinephiles get giddy with excitement. This was the case at this year’s Locarno International Film Festival, which has the international premiere of his latest, From What Is Before, marking Diaz’s first entry in the main competition of an A-list film festival. The blogo- and twitterspheres blew up when the film’s festival selection was announced prior to the festival. Five and a half hours after the first screening, hyperbole started gushing out — and rightly so.
All of Diaz’s films deal with his country’s turbulent recent history.From What Is Before is the third time he’s addressed the era of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos — “the Filipino nightmare,” as he describes it — completing a chronologically inverted trilogy: 2001′s Batang West Side depicts the nightmare’s aftermath, examining the plight of Filipinos living in Jersey City, Filipino Family spans its duration from 1971 to 1987, and From What Is Before hauntingly explores its genesis. From the start, the visuals are spectacular. Having deviated into color with Norte, here Diaz returns to his preferred black-and-white, whose low contrast bestows an almost sepia-like quality on the images befitting the historical material and once again proving his unparalleled mastery of digital video. Even the most hardened analog puritans would be hard pressed to find fault with Diaz’s breathtaking tableaux.
The opening shot of a rural landscape is overlaid with a caption reading “Philippines, 1970” and an elegiac voice-over informing us that “this film is based on memories [and] the characters are based on real people.” The first hour introduces the inhabitants of a tiny barrio buried in the countryside, observing them in a series of protracted extreme long shots, embedding the characters in monumental nature as they go about their daily chores and practice customs such as a healing possession ritual. In this initial chapter, the camera never moves and barely a word is spoken. The most vocal character is the wind, which rages incessantly and combines with the austere cinematography to instill an oppressive sense of dread that will intensify over the course of the film, reaching nigh unbearable levels at the climax. Slowly the film’s protagonists emerge: a young woman caring for her mentally disabled sister, a little boy and his uncle, a solitary winemaker, and the village priest. These characters are familiar from Diaz’s previous work and their role as archetypes is clear, as is the barrio’s function as a microcosm through which to revisit and assess a particularly painful chapter in the nation’s history.
This is an excerpt of my review from the Locarno Film Festival published by Filmmaker. You can read the full review here.
Since writing the above review, Lav Diaz went on to win the Golden Leopard at the 67th Locarno Film Festival for From What Is Before – congratulations!!