Golden Lion Best Film Award at 73rd Venice Film Festival
Screenplay, Edited and Directed by Lav Diaz
Produced by Sine Olivia and Cinema One Originals
Production Design by Popo Diaz
Sound Recorded and Supervised by Mark Locsin & Che Villanueva
Main Cast: Charo Santos-Concio, John Llyod Cruz, Nonie Buencamino, Michael Locsin, Shamaine Buencamino, Mae Paner and Cacai Bautista
Length of Film: 228 minutes

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/01 Oct) — Why do good people suffer?  If there is a God and God is all goodness why does God allow evil and suffering in this world?  In the end, is there hope for humanity in this world?  Is there ever light at the end of the tunnel? Can we ever find what we are searching for in life?

Serious philosophical and theological questions to ask and it is not often that we find a film in the cineplex – showing mainly movies that cater to the bakya crowd’s desire for entertainment and the ensuing escape from the harsh realities we live in – that attempts to provide the answers. But then the film referred to is that of Lav Diaz – Lavrente Indico Diaz born on 30 December1958 – who is possibly the most gifted among our Filipino film directors actively producing films today. Certainly he has been the most awarded along with another notable Filipino film director, Brillante Mendoza.

But Diaz’ Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left) cannot but be serious. It is loosely based on Leo Tolstoy’s short story – “God Sees the Truth, but Waits.”  He appropriates but goes beyond the narrative of this insightful short story that echoes possible scenarios across time and space boundaries. With its black-and-white photography – and most of its scenes shot during the night – it  reflects the tragic stark realities of doomed lives making the film quite dark, literally and metaphorically. After all with this film, Diaz presents a theme of moral accountability, deals with the absurdity of human existence and presents characters that are enmeshed in double lives as they traverse from the evil lurkings of their human desires to possibilities of redeeming their souls.

Diaz’ Humayo is, indeed a serious film; in fact it is far too serious that it is expected not to become a blockbuster like the romantic-comedy films starring John Llyod Cruz. But the good news is that Filipinos can now watch Lav Diaz films in the cineplex along with all the garbage movies thrown at us from Hollywood and those produced locally by Filipino-Chinese film producers.

What used to be frustrating for cineastes in the provinces aching for quality Filipino films was that only audiences at international film festivals and those of Manila – with a few film art houses – could watch this kind of films. True, there were only five of us watching it at 4:20 p.m. Friday afternoon – and there are only two showings per day; and for sure it will only stay for a week –  but one admires the producers for making sure the film is shown nationwide. That is the way local audiences are developed.

Diaz’ Humayo sustains his reputation as truly one of the world cinema’s trailblazer; it is certainly one of his best.  At 228 minutes it is still too long for most moviegoers; but every minute counts and adds to the totality of the film’s coherence. Still, mercifully – unlike the eight-hour long Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery), also released this year – Humayo is more accessible and does not tax the moviegoer’s patience even as the moviegoer maybe Diaz loyal fan. A few critics have referred to the film as some kind of “slow-burn melodrama” but it is not your usual melodramatic teleserye. The plot maybe melodramatic but the film’s aesthetics go beyond the narrow confines of Filipino melodramas based mainly on komiks stories that tend to overstretch the story’s logic and which demand scenes with all those histrionics.

This is the story of Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos-Concio’s comeback role that fits her to a T), a kindhearted teacher who found herself in a veritable reclusion perpetua and spent long years inside a correctional facility for a crime she did not commit. After being wrongly convicted and released thirty years later when the true real killer – Petra (Shamain Buencamino) who was also in prison with her – confessed, she becomes an avenger out to kill the person responsible for her misfortune – Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael de Mesa).

As she plots her retribution against her oppressor, she changes persona and lurks in the darkness stalking his would-be victim. In the dark of night, she meets the dregs of society – the scum, refuse, riffraff, outcasts, deadbeats of any Third World setting like ours. Diaz ventures into the film landscape of social realism poaching into Lino Brocka’s territory (especially Maynila Sa Kuko ng Liwanag) and brings to the screen a desperate hunchback magbabalot (Nonie Buencamino), a foul-mouthed transgender streetwalker Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), a mentally unbalanced streetperson Mameng, garbage collectors, security guards and other creatures of the night. She becomes part of this collection of the world’s rejects that can seem to exist mainly in darkness. (Magbabalot to Horacia: “What are you a vampire? Or Batman coming out of and returning to the dark?”)

These are fractured characters and meandering souls with their own personal histories of injustices and sufferings. They all live double lives lived in the tragedy of the Philippines as a weak society moving towards the beginning of this millennium, wasting their lives in pursuit of a desire to achieve redemption no matter how twisted the path leading to it. How their narratives converge with that of Horacia is what makes the film’s plot so riveting as the viewer wonders how their intersecting lives would all end up at the last scene.

Those who have been wrongly accused and wasted their lives in the dark dungeons of a prison can easily resonate with Horacia’s rage and desire for revenge. Once released, there is this urgent desire to inflict harm on the one responsible for one’s misfortune. Those who suffered through torture and imprisonment during the Marcos dictatorship – and their thousands of them who still yearn for justice thirty (like Horacia’s length of time in prison) years since the dictatorship’s ignominious downfall – like her would wish to secure a gun and shot him. But in the end, as in the case of Horacia, it will be fate that brings the denouement.

Humayo is perhaps Diaz’ 13th film and it brought him luck at the Venice Film Festival winning the Golden Lion Best Film award. But since breaking into Filipino cinema – ironically with Mother Lily’s pito-pito films which help to usher the independent film movement of the country –with Serafin Geronimo: Kriminal ng Barrio Concepcion in 1999 as his first film – Diaz has already accumulated a bountiful harvest in terms of awards from local and international film awards-giving bodies. For a while, being the main proponent of the slow cinema producing the longest narrative films on record. For a while he was only well-known in international film circuits where his films won awards: The Jury Prize at the  Fribourg International Film Festival 2006 for Heremias – Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess  and the NETPAC Award at the Jeonju International Film Festival for Kagadana sa anwaan Ning Engkanto (Death in the Land of the Encantos) in 2007. The breakthrough then came with his film with Norte, the End of History (2013) which was entered into Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, followed by awards at the 2014 Locarno International Film Festival for Hele which also competed for the Golden Bear at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival consequently winning the Alfred Bauer Prize And now Humayo which has also been shown at the 2016 film festivals of Toronto and London.

One is not surprised with Diaz’ triumph at this juncture of global film history.  He proves once more that less is more, the local is global and the personal is political.  Still basically a minimalist filmmaker, Humayo – like most of his films – is uncluttered.  The camera hardly moves as it views the scene; actors come in and out of the screen’s view like all the backdrop. It is only towards the film’s end, that the director allowed the camera to move in a frenetic pace as Horacia searches for Hollanda.  There is no musical score; the only music is the live band at the coastal bar scene. The editing this time is a bit more crisp but still linear in structure as opposed to the usual technique of having flashbacks.

In its minimalism, it is the unfolding of the story and the actors’ ability to inhibit the soul of their characters that will make all the difference in making the film truly outstanding. And here Diaz who also wrote the screenplay – with its dialogue capturing the most eloquent Tagalog lexicon that many times sound poetic – tells a story that is as timeless as Hugo’s Les Miserables and Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. The script is a major literary piece and should be published to allow students of both Filipino Literature and Film to dissect its literary and filmic value that can only be produced by a genius like Diaz.

And he directs his cast so well that all the actors – known for their public persona given the usual sort of films they make – disappear into their roles relishing the scenes that challenge their acting chops. Santos-Concio makes a major comeback to movie acting. Appearing only in very few films since her role in Mike de Leon’s Itim, she makes it known that if she made movies her main preoccupation she could have had a filmography as rich as Lolita Rodriguez, Charito Solis, Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos. In a theatre scene within a film that is Humayo she even sings excerpts of “Sunrise Sunset” (of The Fiddler on the Roof) and “Somewhere” (of West Side Story) and dances, too. Truly, her performance is magical and should bring her laurels as much as Diaz’ direction.

The ensemble realistic acting of the cast is truly impressive and could have been provoked only by a director as intuitive and perceptive as Diaz. Except for Horacia’s tearful scenes and the eruption of her rage at a family quarrel, the film is quiet with hardly any screaming. This fits in well with the director’s aim to allow natural sounds to be heard: birds chirping, frogs croaking, leaves rustling in the wind and even the heartbeats of the characters. The film’s sharp sound produced by Mark Locsin and Che Villanueva provides the needed background for the unfolding of events seen in their everyday – and every night’s – context. John Lloyd Cruz – after Hele and Honor Thy Father – has shown that not only can he be a good actor of romantic comedies which become blockbusters but can turn out a performance that takes the breath away. Among his peers, he is the most courageous of young actors willing to tread where the brave dare not go, as he shows that he couldn’t care less how his fans would react to his out-of-the-box roles. Being still quite young – and if he plays his cards well – he could end up like a Vic Silayan if he follows this path of being an artist, rather than just a popular film star.

The rest of those who play roles in the film are well cast; proving the point that if the actors chosen are the right ones, one-half of the film is already finished. Everyone – including those who played prisoners, warden, lawyers, security guards, doctor, priest – play their part well as if they were people in a documentary film. Hardly an artificial film studio served as location for this film; all scenes are filmed in situ. The choices of the places are most appropriate from the prison to the churches, the narrow urban streets to the bus and boat terminals. One could see that the production design was in sync with the film’s total concept.

Lastly, if a good film mirrors the reality of life, Humayo reflects the true state of the nation and who we are as a Filipino people today. Diaz puts the nation on a weighing scale and finds it wanting from the perspective of those in the margins and they appear everywhere in this film: the prisoners (an indictment of our judiciary system), the informal settlers (an indictment of all our State bureaucracies that have not provided to the homeless), the garbage collectors (an indictment of political dynasties and the hold of the rich and corrupt government officials over the governance system), those with different sexual orientations (an indictment of society harboring prejudices among the LGBT) and the ordinary mamamayan (an indictment of the kind of administrations we have had through the years that have not solved our poverty and inequality problems).  This makes Humayo as timely as Brillantes’ Ma Rosa.

The Church is not spared the accusing finger of Diaz.  Even as he reflects the extent of Filipino folk religiosity – and there are many scenes with religious symbols such as the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, going to church, lighting candles and saying of the rosary – he also brings forth our people’s ambivalence with the religion brought to them by colonizers. “Is there a God?” asks Rodrigo Trinidad the rich and corrupt politician to his parish priest whose answer only makes him squirm in his seat. The hunchback magbabalot, on the other hand, has a definite answer to this question – “There is a God who heals his son, who makes miracles possible!”

But does Diaz answer the question himself? Does he answer all other questions raised by the film?  The last scene gives us an inkling what was in his mind when he made the film. In this scene – shot above the head of Horacia with only the light from the left casting her shadow on the floor with her notices seeking to find her lost son – she walks around and around and around until the scene fades. Could we human beings, like Horacia, also go around and around and around seeking answers to questions and never finding them in this life?