by Allan Fish
(Philippines 2014 336m) not on DVD
Aka. Mula sa kung ano ang noon
Bai rahmah will arrive in full moon
p Krzysztof Dabrowski, Lav Diaz d/w Lav Diaz ph Lav Diaz ed Lav Diaz art Liryc Paolo Dela Cruz, Kim Perez
Perry Dizon (Sito Almazan), Roeder Camanag (Tony), Hazel Orencio (Itang), Karenina Haniel (Joselina), Reynan Abcede (Hakob), Joel Saracho (Father Guido), Evelyn Vargas (Miss Acevedo), Miles Canapi (Heding), Ian Lomongo (Lt.Perdido), Bambi Beltran (Bai Rahmah), Dea Formacil (Tinang), Ching Valdes-Aran (Babu),
When Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History played in the English-speaking world, it was greeted with a sense akin to rapture. One recalls Peter Bradshaw’s referring to it as a Dosteyevskian saga, and he wasn’t far wrong, but you won’t find an entry for Norte here, because to these eyes Norte seemed conformist, diluted from Diaz’s real vision. I had the advantage of knowing Diaz’s work well prior to Norte, and it seemed phoney; it’s shot in colour for starters, and in ‘Scope, and was only barely four hours long; a marathon for western viewers, a mere prawn side salad for Lav.
Norte is what would have happened if Rembrandt had actually just painted the portraits of Frans Banninck Cocq and his preening comrades instead of giving us the masterpiece of the Night’s Watch. It’s the Picasso who painted that stunning portrait of his mother barely out of puberty before he found his real voice. Or in cinematic terms, it’s David Lynch taking time out to film The Straight Story before moving onto the real McCoy of Mulholland Drive. For his next feature Diaz moves back into his territory, to his style of filmmaking; From What is Before could be titled To What Was Before.
The before is the turn of the 1970s in a tiny barrio just prior to the Martial Law declaration of Ferdinand Marcos. It centres round a handful of characters. There’s an old woman praying to the old Gods; a wine maker, Tony, roams about looking to cause trouble; Heding is a peddler who tries to sell mosquito nets to people but can’t keep her mouth shut; Father Guido tries to help his scattered and rapidly dwindling charges; a small boy, Hakob, lingers about with the other boys, bunking off school, sitting on abandoned pipes or on the roadside like the kids in an old Shimizu film; his teacher Miss Acevedo has to worry about the military commandeering the school as a camp; and Sito is a cowhand who gets fired after a slaughter on his watch. And all floating round the principal characters, two sisters; with the elder Itang spending most of her time caring for the handicapped Joselina. They used to travel about performing healing on local afflicted – malaria and leprosy linger – but have been forced to stop and sell rice cakes. Yet Itang no longer has the time to make them and between that, their praying to a rock face on the sea shore which they believe contains the spirit of the Virgin Mary, Tony’s attempt to rape Joselina and the gossiping Heding, spreading rumours that Joselina is the abandoned child of a kapre (demon), their lives start to unravel.
The success of Norte gave From What is Before more press coverage, including a prize at the Locarno Film Festival and a showing in London in July 2015. It’s unlikely to sell many copies if it ever goes to DVD or Blu Ray like Norte, but this is still the real deal. Diaz’s camera is generally fixed at roughly the same three foot height once used by Ozu, but that’s all there is of the classical masters. We’re back to nearly a complete lack of camera movement; and when the camera does move it’s either by proxy (when fixed to a moving boat) or in brief slow horizontal pans. Plot is subservient to rhythm, nuance and performance to composition, close-ups strictly forbidden, while seemingly disposable talk drags you in like a whirlpool off-shore. It’s a political film, but grass roots, or should I say very long grass roots, political in how decisions made in far off Manila impact on the everyday people living day to day in the remote hills, with soldiers there to keep the peace but also enforce it with Orwellian rigidity, with a sense of impending tragedy lingering throughout and reaching a devastating pay off in the last act. Masterful in every sense.