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Lav Diaz’s ‘From What is Before’ Movie Review – is a haunting elegy to times past

Lav Diaz’s ‘From What is Before’ Movie Review – is a haunting elegy to times past

From What is Before Lav Diaz

From What is Before
Written and directed by Lav Diaz
Philippines, 2014

From What is Before, the latest epic from Filipino slow-cinema auteur Lav Diaz, examines a major fault line in his country’s history. Chronicling the terminal decline of a remote coastal barrio, which has been unknowingly embroiled in the ensuing apocalypse sweeping across the Philippines, it culminates in Ferdinand Marcos’s 1972 declaration of martial law and the beginning of his brutal kleptocracy. A voiceover in the film’s closing lines describes the preceding five-and-a-half hours as “the memory of a cataclysm”, marking out these events as creating a significant break with even the most recent past. From What is Before might not have the sheer force of Diaz’s last outing, the Crime and Punishment-inspired Norte: The End of History, but it is a more accomplished film overall, utilising every inch of its formidable length to build a haunting elegy for times past.

Although the narrative begins two years before Marcos’s soldiers station themselves in the barrio, it is clear from the outset that something ominous is taking place. Three houses are burned down in one night, cows from a local ranch are being hacked to death and strange noises have started to emerge from the surrounding forest. The villagers gossip about these events – which Diaz pointedly locates between 1970 and 1972 – in portentous terms, blaming evil spirits and mythical creatures, predicting Armageddon and the coming of hell. There are several untimely deaths; one man is found at the roadside with a bite on his neck, while another appears to have been murdered by a rival clan. Two sisters, Itang (Hazel Orencio) and the severely disabled Joselina (Karenina Haniel), are believed to have healing powers but are prevented from performing their traditional duties by the sceptical parish priest. The phrase “deliver us from evil” echoes loudly around the barrio but the inhabitants can have little idea what kind of evil is on its way.

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From What is Before Hazel OrencioDiaz’s cinematography is stunning, evoking, in rich monochrome, this community at the edge of history. In the early scenes, villagers emerge imperceptibly from the landscape, scarcely differentiated from the foliage and hills, but that is all about to change. There is a gorgeous shot which must go on for several minutes, showing a woman sitting in a boat floating slowly down the river. The camera tilts with the movement of the boat and meanders with the river, but the woman remains serenely still, travelling gracefully beneath the canopy. However, despite moments like this, there is little idealism in the way the barrio is rendered and any sense of calm is always susceptible to violent rupture. When the body is discovered at the crossroads, it is filmed in close-up by a camera that is been discarded next to it. The perspective is jarring, moving with one shot into the territory of war. When contrasted with the numerous funeral scenes, steeped in sorrow, ritual and meaning, shots like this elucidate exactly what is in the process of being lost. The most visually striking and narratively charged scenes take place at Holy Rock, an imposing altar rising out of the sea. Amid the chaos, crashing waves and moral confusion, Diaz sets up the crisis that will bring the barrio crashing to its knees.

Unfortunately, the film is hampered by a few technical problems, which somewhat mar its immersive qualities. The sound is the main issue; channels cut in and out in the middle of scenes and there are evident background loops, some of which go on for some time. Mics are clearly visible on occasion, presumably due to the impracticalities of reshooting such lengthy scenes. There are also a few issues with the light early on, although these vanish altogether very quickly. The problems are far from a deal breaker – aside from the sound, it would be easy to miss them altogether – and it should be noted that Diaz is working on an astonishingly low budget for a major filmmaker. With this in mind, the actors, many of whom also appeared in Norte, perform wonderfully and, despite the minor distractions, it’s a highly cinematic experience.

From What is Before Karenina Haniel

With From What is Before, Diaz has made a film that is perfectly in tune with his method; the long, real-time shots build a rich and evocative impression of life as it was in the barrio, before history catches up and overwhelms it. The major incidents – the deaths, the hackings, the military takeover – take place, relatively speaking, in the blink of an eye but their consequences reverberate throughout the film, only gradually coming to a head in the final act. Diaz leaves several clues about what is happening but the political crimes that are committed and the manner in which the barrio is destroyed are so subtle, it leaves the inhabitants suffering in their own ignominy and weaknesses. In certain devastating scenes, it becomes clear that the barrio was already on the verge of collapse, corrupted by forces much older than the invading army. The pacing allows time to consider the full implications of the narrative – accepting the style for what it is, very little of it is wasted. Demonstrating a masterful grasp of history, Diaz has made a film which elucidates the conditions which led to his country’s darkest period, gradually exposing an insidious fait accompli that eradicated an entire way of life.

– Rob Dickie

For more information about the 2015 Glasgow Film Festival, visit their official website. You can also find more Sound on Sight coverage of GFF 2015 here.