The reactions from friends and family have been universal upon mentioning I watched Lav Diaz’s Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis. “You watched an 8-hour movie. Why?” I admit I might not have been so interested in a John Lloyd/Piolo starrer had it not been for the fact it received an international award from a film festival I very much respect. We rarely get art house in the mall multiplexes, and while I love blockbusters, sometimes I feel like I need a change. I make an effort to see anything art house when I get the chance to. Furthermore, its story really sells itself to me as a history and literature buff, with intertwining dual plots–one semi-historical of the last days of Andres Bonifacio’s life and Gregoria De Jesus’ (Hazel Orencio) search for his body, and the other featuring the escape of Simoun (Piolo Pascual) and Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz) from the city after their failed bomb plot in El Filibusterismo. I found Hele amazingly fulfilling, and I am going to give you eight reasons, a reason for every hour of film, why you should consider seeing the movie for yourself.
- It has stunning cinematography. Nothing says artsy like black and white, but here the lights and shadows really spell out the brooding mood of Diaz’s movie. The shots are perfectly composed from a photographic standpoint; the rule of thirds, framing, leading lines all in abundance. The elemental themes are particularly awesome, the way fire, smoke, and water ripple across the screen in monochrome creates strange effects that mesmerize.
- It’s the film version of a religious retreat. Starting from the hypnotic effect of the gorgeous visuals, I found myself in a trance-like state for much of the movie. All that time gives you a lot of space for contemplation; but this is particularly a meditation–thoughts don’t fill your head, instead you are much more aware of the present moment, and it draws one to a kind of nirvana if you let it. However, I acknowledge that those not used to meditation may find this unnerving. As someone who has been in numerous silent retreats, I find the experience similar, but I remember what it is like when you first start that kind of meditation; one is prone to either fall asleep or get impatient and itchy. However, Hele will help you develop the discipline of stillness if you surrender to it.
- It has some beautiful music and poetry. Hele does not have a traditional score but what it does do is give time to have music performed, mostly in full. These range from the spiritual to the folk, and all that time means one can savour each song. Poetry also is allowed to be read in full, particularly Mi Ultimo Adios, Jose Rizal’s last poem, which must be heard as regularly as possible in my opinion. This poem actually perfectly describes what Hele is about: revolution, frustration, suffering, beauty.
- It features the wonders of Philippine nature. If Rizal dedicated his poem to the “Creatures I love”, Diaz similarly celebrates the beauty of Filipino nature, not only in the meditative pictures he presents, but in a soundtrack of the wild that makes up the background music for most the movie. Close your eyes, and it will bring you to the nature you delighted in time spent outdoors as a child, the songs of cicadas and crickets, the crackling of fire, and the murmurations of running water. In urban lives, these sounds have grown mute, so to be brought back to them can be soul restoring.
- It features brilliant performances. While most eyes will be on Cruz and Pascual, it is their surrounding cast that will really impress here. I should mention that the plot of Oryang takes up more time than those of the male heroes. The women, like a tableau of the women at the foot of the cross or the empty tomb, are the characters that have been ingrained into my soul. Alessandra de Rossi as the traitor searching for redemption, in particular, continues her reign as the Philippines’ most accomplished young actor (her Spanish is particularly good).
- Angel Aquino, Cherie Gil and Bernado Bernado will freak you out. There is also a supernatural twist to this movie, featuring these three thespians as tikbalang. While the film never moves into horror territory, these guys do manage to steal their scenes whenever they are present. Of course, our local monsters, while often horrific, are also seductive; how many country girls have been impregnated by matruculans and kapres. I, too, found myself attracted most to these characters in their elemental malevolence and trickster playfulness. Whenever they left the screen, I longed for them to come back.
- We get to meet some of our favourite characters from El Filibusterismo. Rizal himself does not make an appearance in the film, but Diaz cleverly mixes factual characters with fictional ones, such as Isagani and Simoun. I say this is clever because it mirrors the historical case that fact and fiction are so closely married; it is said that Andres Bonifacio was so directly inspired by El Filibusterismo that he actually took some of Simoun’s revolutionary plans and enacted them in his own rebellion (read Ambeth Ocampo’s work for more details about this.). Well, in this way Diaz, adds another reflection where life imitated art, and now art reflects the art-influenced reality.
- Filipino history is intrinsically interesting. Heneral Luna proved that Filipino history has a rich vein of stories that should be mined by filmmakers. Diaz takes on this gauntlet and moves deeper with it, making a film that is more ambiguous about giving advice as to what makes a Filipino hero. It also takes a more balanced approach, certainly in terms of sexual politics; Diaz gives us history from the female perspective that is mostly lacking, especially in the hagiographies of great men which normally pass as historical movies here. I hope this kind of thoughtful meditation of our history is continued by Diaz in his future films, as it is only by exploring our past will we come to understand where we are now.