by Sam Juliano
Screening at the Village East Cinemas on the first day of the Tribeca Film Festival, Brillant Mendoza’s naturalistic Phillipine art house feature Lola, traverses some of the same territory visited by Hsao-Hsien in its humanistic underpinnings and by the Dardenne brothers in its wordless sequenes and deliberate pacing. Yet, with the use of a hand-held camera, often jerky in motion, sustained for most of the film’s length, there is also a strain of the amateur here, which, though there’s no doubt that cinematographer Odyssey Flores captures some striking images in this story of squalor and impovrishment, beaurocratic obstinance, and the economic dictates of contemporary society.
The symetrical story basically concerns two elderly matriarchs who must bear the financial and legal ramifications of a crime in which both their grandsons are involved. One is murdered with a knife, while the other is the prime suspect. While trying to sustain their families’ meagre existence in makeshift shacks along and over rising waterways in Manila, the grandmothers must navigate even more trecherous domestic waters in funeral homes, prisons and court rooms, where they are always on the outside looking in. The conflict almost never reaches levels of vocal acceleration, rather the absence of false conflicts render the film as an acute ‘slice ofd life’ drama, much in the tradition of cinema verite. Lola is shot on video instead of film, yet the crystal clear canvas, much of it negotiated through a steady and driving rain, unveils a beautiful panorama of the urban Manila landscape. Mendoza posesses the social urgency of a Bahreni, with the lyrical devices of a Hsaio-Hsien, yet he’s singular in his insightful focus on the lower classes in this film and in his past work. Lola was rather a return to the sociological roots of the earlier films, apart from last year’s Serbis, which bordered more on Tsai Ming-Liang in its sensory overload and more provocative themes, which centered around pornography.
The film opens on a series of languid shots as a boy and his grandmother make their way through the streets of the city, wanting to stand upon the very spot where her grandson was murdered. Then, she takes on the wrenching task of visiting a funeral home, where the proprietor tries to sell her some coffins she has no money to buy (she settles for the cheapest, no-frills one) and then to the police station, where more frustrations await. At this point, the plot introduces the other “Lola” who is there to respond to the accusation of murder leveled against her own grandson. The narrative then visits both women, alternately, as they scramble to scrape up money for the burial and the defense. The film’s most beautiful sequence is the funeral procession down the city waterways, which underlined the limitations of the lower classes, who still were able to partake in one of civilized society’s most sedate moments.
At 110 minutes the film is too long to sustain this meagre, if often compelling matter. As a work about a culture in transition Lola is an impressive work, but it’s pacing will almost certainly be felt as an endurance test for some, as there really isn’t any kind of linear dramatic continuity. Still, Mendoza knows his home turf, and of the poignancy of economical strife, issues that date all the way back to the French and Japanese humanists and the Italian neo-realists. It’s a cinema where the style is far less important than the characters and their struggle to survive. Almost inevitably, the two women who portray the grandmothers, especially the kin of the deceased on, give wrenching performances that ring true. Lola almost disavows editing, and it’s focus in on character activity, yet in the end it’s hard not to feel for these people and their hardships and plight. By quite a distance that’s no small achievement.
Final Rating: **** (of five)
Note: I saw ‘Lola’ on Thursday evening at 8:00 P.M. at the Village East Cinemas with Broadway Bob Eagleson as part of the Tribeca Film festival. I have three more Tribeca films scheduled to see over the next week. Bob and I stopped off at The Dish on 8th Avenue afterwards for a late night snack, as we had skipped supper.