FILM REVIEW:  Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby To The Sorrowful Mystery)        

Directed by                     : Lav Diaz
Produced by                   : Lav Diaz, Blanca Balbuena, Paul Soriano
Written and Edited by  :  Lav Diaz
Music by                          : Ely Buendia, Danny Fabella
Cinematographt            : Larry Manda
Distributed by                : Star Cinema
Cast                                  : John Llyod, Piolo Pascual, Hazel Orencio, Alessandra de Rossi,                                                            Susan Africa, Joel Saracho, Bernardo Bernardo, Cherie Gil, Angel Aquino, Sid Lucero, Ely Buendia,  Bart Guingona,   Menggie Cabarrubias, Ronnie Lazaro, Karenna Haniel, Paul Jake                               Paule
Running Time                 : 485 mins (8 hours)
Won                                  : Silver Bear (Alfred Bauer Prize) at the Berlin Film Festival

There is no doubt about it; Hele sa Hiwaging Hapis the film event in the country in 2016!

Lucky and privileged are all those who have the opportunity to watch the film on the big screen;  it is an amazing film experience, truly one-of-a-kind!  The Filipino cineastes are very lucky; with Hele released in the cineplex, there is finally a Lav Diaz film that one can watch luxuriouly in a nearby cinema; rather than wait for it to be shown at special film events. And – surprise! – there are enough Filipinos to patronize it so that the producers can recoup part if not their entire production costs.  (While watching it at Cinema 6 of GMall (in Davao City), there were about a hundred of us in the audience; and the film has been showing already nine days since Black Saturday).  It may not have the enormous box-office of General Luna, but it could still find a paying audience!

06heleWhen it opened at the recent Berlin Film Festival it received mixed reviews.  There were critics who praised it to high heavens with these words: “mesmerizing weave of narratives,” “powerful movie experience, a masterpiece of slow cinema,” “a large-scale event film that combines a nation’s history and an intimate story with unusual mastery.”  However, critical comments include: “confusing, slightly patchy,” “strains to be channeled into a focused film” and “pompous and shapeless”.

Me thinks this film should be a required viewing for all students of Philippine history, even as the film also provides discourses related to philosophy, literature, political science, sociology and the arts, specifically the art of filmmaking.  Its length of  485 minutes or roughly 8 hours is daunting and could tax the audience used to fast-paced films running only for two hours. This film is slow, there are many moments when there is utter silence (silence being a character of the film itself), there are limited action scenes (battle scenes are not staged), no heavy background music (most background sound are natural sounds of forests, seas and other aspects of nature) and it is in black-and-white.

But there is a logic to this Lav Diaz masterpiece which explains its length, its language, its aesthetics making it into a stylized piece of art!  One needs to fully embrace this logic if one were to fully appreciate the historical, philosophical and artistic significance of Hele; a lack of openness to experiencing this kind of cinema can only lead to frustration and dissatisfaction, especially because it demands the audience’s engagement throughout eight hours. For Diaz’ logic is embedded in his vision as filmmaker to merge mythology, historical facts and a vibrant sense of history via a story-telling technique that brings together tributaries of legends, myths and events while tapping into the artistic reservoir of poems, songs, chants and symbols. For after all, ours is a culture that foments a sense of the romantic even in the midst of deep suffering and difficult struggles.

In shaping his film’s storyline, Diaz borrows characters from Rizal’s novels (Isagani, Basilio, Simoun, Crisostomo Ibarra et al), historical figures (Bonifacio, Aguinaldo, the Paternos, the Makapagals, the Colorum,  et al) as well as creatures from myths  (the tikbalangs) and of them within the same setting that inspired their existence.  For Diaz, it is truly possible to make all these cross paths in an intricate tapestry that brings forth the film’s discourses on nationhood, identity, freedom, art and people’s destiny.

The film’s main storyline (and it constitutes a big chunk of the film) is the search of Bonifacio’s widow, Gregoria de Jesus or Oryang (Hazel Orencio), for the body of her husband, Andres Bonifacio y de Castro, who with his brother, Procopio, were hacked to death by soldiers loyal to Emilio Aguinaldo in the forest traversing Mt. Buntis and Mt. Tala.  Along with Aling Hule (Susan Africa), Cesaria Belarmino (Alessandra de Rossi) and Mang Karyo (Joel Saracho), she ventured into the forest hoping to find the remains of her husband. The film ends with the outcome of that month-long search.

Just as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness) chronicled a person’s journey into the interior which is also a heartland, Hele is Oryang’s journey into the deep forest to seek her heart’s desire.  In both narratives, the journey ends in heartbreak but which provokes the main character’s deep reflections on life, love and the pursuit of ideals!

There are the parallel gut-wretching journey of Simoun (Piolo Pascual) and Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz) into the forests as they sought to ultimately reach the latter’s uncle’s abode where the wounded Simeon could be taken cared of. It is this journey that allows these two fictional characters to manifest their stance on various discourses.  Thus on the concept of art; Simoun tells Isagani that art equals freedom. And that the concept of freedom is n ot just emancipation from Spain, but that “Filipino freedom is greater than that; it freedom requires long discourse, it  demands exhaustive struggle. Being free from Spain is just the start.”

But between these two main rivers constituting the film’s narrative, there are vignettes that can be incorporated because of the film’s length. There is the unrequited love of Isagani for Pepita, a woman who seemed to have attracted a number of men, including the musician-poet (Ely Buendia) who sings one of the haunting love songs of the film’s soundtrack (the classic kundiman Jocelnang Baliwag). There is the Spanish Captain-General (Bart Guingona) whose mistress if Cesaria Belarmino whose betrayal of the Katipunan led to the debacle at Silang (a turning point in the revolution).

There is Aling Hule’s tragedy of losing her two sons. There is Basilio who shot Simoun after which searched for the proverbial treasure planted near a balete tree. There is Rosario (Karenna Haniel) and the abduction of her husband, Jose. There is the farmer who witnessed Bonifacio’s tragic ending and the boatman who assisted Isagani in carrying Simoun across the forest.  Most of them are not afforded any luxury; they go through so much pain and suffering, anxiety and remorse, sowing melancholy as they pursue their various quests.

One is struck at how Diaz brings his audience into the orbit of pain; forcing his audience to dare experience the very core of that pain.  This seems to be an integral element of his filmography.  In his very first film – the most impressive Criminal of Barrio Concepcion in 1998, the Ramon Bagatsing character had a toothache which he suffered practically throughout the film, making the audience squirm at the pain. In Hele, he does this with the characters of Karyo (with TB),  Simeon (bullet wound) and the victims of atrocities and torture.

But on the other hand, it is very clear that love – in all its permutations from love of a lover to a love of the nation) is at the core of the film’s message. In fact, the film is Diaz’ love letter to the Filipino people.  But this is tough love; it is love ensconced in pain and suffering, struggle and frustration.  And it is timeless; it transcends borders of time and space.  Thus it is both embedded in deep memory and need to be set forth in the past and future.  Which is why the symbol of fog (and occasionally smoke) is perpetually present throughout the film. Diaz allows his film to be bathed by the mist of time; but also to break through the mist to find meaning in the here and now; and lastly, that freedom is is not an element fragmented from love. We wish our loved ones freedom because it is their right.

And in the here and now, Diaz brings out his own views of Philippine history: even as Bonifacio is the father of the Philippine Revolution, it is important for each one of us to be part of this revolutionary agenda through our involvement in political and social developments; that the Revolution is no picnic; it can devour its own children; the birthing of a nation is an ordeal, the molding of a nation is one of clashing sins and virtues united by an unbridled passion for the heart’s desires; art and literature has tremendous power in building a nation and sustaining its soul; there is no binary opposition between history and fiction; both are interchangeable; there is both beauty and terror as a people collectively imagine themselves as a nation; and freedom is not an element of a history that has long been buried in the past, but its quest should be a continuing struggle with everyone taking part in its fruition.

Among Hele’s major accomplishment which makes it a frontrunner for various film festival awards are its cinematography (Larry Manda’s moving picture is also composite of beautiful black-and-white photos); the minimalist music, the production design (sets and costumes which are most appropriate) and the ensemble acting of the most accomplished Filipino actors from film, stage and TV.  Pascual and Cruz prove that they have transcended their matinee film roles (the pa-cute ones aimed at giggling teenage film crowd) and could now be referred to as one of the best actors of their generation for serious film roles. Their recitation of Mi Ultimo Adios in Spanish and rich poetic Tagalog is certainly a highlight of the film.

But having lavishly praised Hele, this critic puts forward two contentions issues.  For all its attempt to make Hele an integral part of Philippine history, it is also to be said that the Katipunan – and Diaz’ depiction of it – is mainly a struggle of the Tagalogs; those living in Rizal, Laguna, Cavite, Bulacan and Quezon.  After all, the Philippines at one time was referred to as Katagalogan. Thus the underlying cultural landscape of the film is Tagalog culture – the language, the music, the expressions, etc.  Indeed, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities posits that “the nation is an imagined community”; the Republic was initially the imagined nation of the Tagalogs, despite the bickerings and internal tensions among them. If one is Moro, Lumad and even as descendant of migrant-settlers growing up in Mindanao, the Katipunan story is a struggle quite distant from those whose struggles were of a different nature even if the goals were the same – emancipation and freedom from outsiders turned oppressors.

Diaz’ version of Philippine revolutionary history is close to that of the Agoncillos and Constantinos; quite far from the one of Rey Ileto.  One vignette of Hele deals with the Colorum; viewing Hele, Ileto will squirm at his seat.  While Diaz does not fall into the trap of fragmenting historical events as the Gomburza, the martyrdom of Rizal, the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution as if they were connected organically with each other; Diaz brings them together in a continuum.  But in privileging the Katipunan as the only significant moment in the people’s struggle for emancipation, he shows ignorance of the other significant moment involving the social movements (pejoratively referred to as the “cults” of Mt. Banahaw) like those organized by Apolinario dela Cruz or Hermano Pule. Unfortunately, Diaz’ portrait of the Colorum is rather negative, thus perpetuating the myth that these were cults that eventually had  little contribution of the entire revolutionary project.

But despite these two points, this critic has one last word:  While it is still showing at the cineplex, dear reader, go watch Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis and I assure you, this is a cinematic experience you will not forget in a long, long time!

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. He is author of several books, including Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations, and two books on Davao’s history launched in December 2015 — Davao in the Pre-Conquest Era and the Age of Colonization and Si Menda u gang Baganin’ng gitahspan nga mao si Mangulayon. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw)]