A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery ★★★★½


Hours 72-80

Diaz's elemental experimentation in his 10s work finds an intersection with the singular humane focus mimiced in his epics at the start of the century fused with a B movie tone only previously present in his 90s trilogy. I've criticised Diaz's films for being lazy (a comment I regret) and thematically repetitive (a comment I stand by) but on reflection this is partly because his thematic puppetry is one of diminishing returns cursed with never making the same idea interesting twice.

In theory at least, it should be a bad thing that A Lullaby To A Sorrowful Mystery is so narratively derivative. This is far from a criticism as I'll explain earlier but with the exception of Century Of Birthing, the only project of his where he was beaten at his own game before the film even came out (discounting it's length David Perlov's Yoman and Jonas Mekas's works chart similar territory) his previous work aims to capitalise on growing movements in cinema.

The early period of his work is inherently memetic. I have only seen one Lino Brocka film (Orapronobis which is a near masterpiece and desperately want to check out more in 2017) but in those 98 minutes you can draw a thread from those works right up to Conception, Burger Boys and Naked Under The Moon.

In this new context An Evolution Of A Filipino Family only seems more self referential, with Diaz positioning himself as a figure into this new movement. The boom that occurred in Slow Cinema at the time (too many examples to name, I'll take Satantango for now) is re-purposed for the modern zeitgeist, Diaz paints in broadstrokes not out of artistry but of responsibility to his people (This is also why I despise this period the most thematically as it intentionally plays a gambit to the viewer to watch regardless of content).

After lost time has been granted (his career up to Florence Hubaldo C.T.E runs 62 hours) with some modicum of experimentation in these 11 years although not enough to really justify each successive film he again switches gears with Norte: The End Of History, his first film in colour since the 90s and building of an adaptation of Dostoevsky rather than needlessly misquoting him (of course critics thought this was a step backwards). Norte's placement in his timeline is crucial as the birth of an auteur in Filipino Family is then killed in Norte. It's resurrection then starts to occur.

Prologue To The Great Desperado is a very uninteresting movie in it's own right. Diaz plays to none of known strengths as a film-maker and instead exists as indulgent wallowing, the dense forest being the only thing of note as it's omnipresent trees manage to display more presence than any of the actors, but for Diaz this would be a Third First Movie after Fiipino just as Godard said of Every Man For Himself. Not just is it a prologue to From What Is Before it's also a prologue to his new style. This film treats nature as the central tenant, with it's three protagonists wandering in it's fury rather than the other way round. Diaz realises man's own futility and directs his nihilism from political metaphor to natural humanism (I don't think he does a very good job at explaining this for most of it's run-time but it's a great idea). From this he created what is in my mind his best film at that point, The Day Before The End where this idea is shrunken into a microcosm both literally in the running time and figuratively as Before's themes are transposed into the real world (Storm Children: Book One also does this but alas it's his only major work before this film I cannot get hold of). Which brings us to 2016. Diaz's Third First Movie.

For one thing the biggest difference between this film and any of Diaz's previous movies in this style is one of a narrative path. From the very first scene a point A is defined in it's story, a man is shot in mid range smoking. The camera then pans to another room as the pipe edges towards the vanishing point as Diaz finally, FINALLY builds of 30+ years of film creates a reduction in the frame. What was once an ever expanding landscape of negative space with characters dotted like pins on a map to create a wider picture is now honed in on the pin. This pinhole approach to his cinema creates artificiality in the best possible way, everything is reduced to pixels on a screen, frames in a reel, atoms in a vacuum but all perfectly uniform. With seventy two hours under your belt those two minute take on new life, and the scene after it in a pictorial landscape only hammers this harder as Diaz makes nature seem fake. The best thing is that I can't work out how he does this? Everything seems so square. The same blocking techniques that are present in all his films are used (although I don't think he's ever had a cast this big before) but this process trims all of the fat in the image. For an 8 hour movie I can't think of the last time a modern director has ever been so minimalist.

It goes further than framing devices however. Not since Burger Boys, his very first film has he ever not 100% commited to realism but here he draws from Filipino history to conjure images onto the screen, gone are the reworking of neorealism as the shades of grey diffuse into (gorgeous) black and whites, heroes and vilians, ambiguity but not this time for it's own sake but one that does not impede the story in any way. it's length even feels like it's own plot point, with the 8 hours reflexively working like a poison entering the bloodstream as what happens to the revolutionary.

Poison is a good metaphor for the film, and even his career at large. The film extracts attention rather than gaining it. His once pointed focus on one idea in his similarly long epics (exception being Melancholia's intertwining stories none of which fully resolves) now expands into a Masala approach where the film rotates from a lovers serenade to a ritualistic prayer that crashes into a (surprisingly well executed) action scene and especially in the first half constantly defies expectation (I will agree with nearly everyone that the film becomes a lot more singular after the intermission but it at least has meaning this time). Did I mention nearly every scene has a smoke machine in it? Obfuscating the image as well as the meaning of the story? Someone should write about that.

I can't really see where Diaz goes from here. The Woman Who Left looks very conventional by his standards so I doubt this Bollywood inspired movement will lead to anything for Flipino standards but with this film he's cannibalised his entire ouevre and regurgitated a sculpture. Whatever petty criticisms I have regarding this films meandering (It's 8 hours after all, not even the gems of Long Cinema are free from editing) distract from the whole, like a famous painter burning his entire life's work and painting the fire.