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Locarno 2014

Sturm und Drang and Its Contemporary Beyonds
By Alexandra Zawia

“Reality is not a function of the event as event, but of the relationship of that event to past, and future, events." ― Robert Penn Warren (All the King's Men)

From What Is Before
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"From What Is Before" (Lav Diaz)

An examination of the conditions for oppression won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival this year: in From What is Before (Mula sa kung ano ang noon), Philippine director Lav Diaz revisits mysterious incidents which were happening at the beginning of the 1970s around Manila, two years before General Marcos proclaimed a military dictatorship. Today, it is considered evident that the mysterious bombings of that period were part of a strategic plan thought up by the Filipino military to pave the way for the installment of Marcos' regime. They were intended to stir anxiety among the population, especially in rural areas, to make them want to embrace a savior soon, a dictator even, just to regain a feeling of security.

From What Is Before is the chronology of an advertised mass murder, if you will. The anatomy of a barrio set in the rural remoteness of Manila's coast; a reflection on individual and collective strength and failure when outward conditions change; an associative analysis of default settings. And it's topical.

In the tradition of cinéma pauvre (with next to no budget and each member of the crew taking on more than one function during the shoot), and as a striking example of Slow Cinema, Diaz unfolds — in perfectly nuanced black and white and ample framing at first — his immense force. We are subtly and only gradually introduced to the handful inhabitants of the barrio (some metaphorical and recurring figures in Diaz' work) — each of whom seems to bear some kind of secret: Sito, a cowherd and his adopted son Hakob; Tony, a wine seller; a priest; Joselina, a severely autistic faith healer with her sister Itang who has committed her life to taking care of her; a nosey and conniving door-to-door saleswoman who — strangely enough — just recently moved there...

We understand that the barrio is a sustained autarchy: the people are poor but they have established a loose support network amongst each other. The barrio functions, and regular visits from a healer reinvigorate them with new faith and strengthened spirit and reconcile them with their surroundings.

Yet, this is no idyll. Something indefinable is looming over the barrio — or is it rooted deep down inside? Gradually and almost unnoticeably, the images start to change slightly; frames turn into frames within frames, and with minor shifts of perspectives from interiors now, our view is becoming slightly limited. 

Then, one day, a dead body is found at a crossing. Cows are being hacked. People disappear. Slowly, fear starts seeping into the barrio's social fabric and makes way for archaic impulses to emerge. And one day, a group of soldiers suddenly set up camp in the school building.

From What Is Before
space.
"From What Is Before" (Lav Diaz)

Diaz completely immerses the audience into the cultural aesthetics of the region and a concept of time which most crucially is defined by doing away with the concept of time: more than once, it takes a second or two to realize that there is a human being moving in the frame, so intrinsically are they tied to their setting, to nature surrounding them. In Diaz's work, duration is a means of narration, a tool to contemplate: over 338 minutes, the film evolves as an organic structure, accumulating details and always hinting at something hidden behind what we see, at invisible phantoms that seem to haunt the barrio, its inhabitants, and the film alike. Impeccable images are sometimes suddenly disrupted by water splashes on the camera or a slight tilting as if from the wind. That gives the film a documentary feel at times.

Especially in the second half of the film, the acuteness achieved thereby weighs in more prominently. The film ends in a disturbing scene. For minutes, we see a man dangling from a tree, and the militants who captured him drinking beer around him. He's not moving, he seems to be dead, but then, suddenly, he winces, and the film ends. Is that meant to be a call for resistance? Or could the actor not perform dead any longer? It’s our present situation which will have us decide on the option.

In his acceptance speech, Lav Diaz dedicated his prize to the Portuguese director Pedro Costa, who was honored with the award for best director: "Costa is my brother", he said, and there is indeed a connection between Diaz's film and Costa's new work, Horse Money (Cavalo Dinheiro), and that is their anchoring in the present while looking upon national traumas from the past.

'Some say they make their films to remember', Costa said in Locarno. 'I made this film to forget.' — In Horse Money, he returns to Ventura, the Cape Verdean man from Juventude Em Marcha, an illegal immigrant, a fugitive in many respects and a central metaphorical figure in Costa's work. Ventura, who was once expelled from Fontainhas, is haunted by traumatic memories which he’s recalling here and which weave into a dense and complex history of the country.

Costa transfers these memories to the screen through radical aesthetic means: statuesque images, meticulously lit, yet somber and similar to earthy oil paintings, create the atmosphere of a fantastic space behind reality. A few times, they are thematically linked by musical sequences — one especially written as an interpretation of the symbolism embodied by Ventura — but very often, the frames are enlivened only by the whisper of the characters therein. Quite unusually, Costa does not work with natural light here; instead, lighting serves him as a conscious tool to make only selective parts visible or to enhance distinctive fragments within a frame — a face, a body, hands or a door.

One of the strongest sequences takes place in an elevator (a scene Costa already used in Centro Histórico), in which Ventura meets a soldier. The man, resembling a hardly moving stone figure is a haunting memorial, and he's stuck in this elevator — stuck in standstill and in time — with Ventura, a deceased prophet.

These two films are so outstanding not only in their political relevance for our present and their universal claim in their dealings with historical traumas, but also in their formal language, the boundaries they push and the limits they transcend, which render them strikingly intense and, above all, important.

Alexandra Zawia
© FIPRESCI 2014

Alexandra Zawia is a freelance film critic based in Vienna.

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