Independence streaming: Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis
BLITZ REVIEW - Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - June 19, 2020 - 12:00am

One of these days, edited versions of Lav Diaz’s slow cinema epics will be shown in multiplex movie theaters, thereby reducing the chances of catching COVID-19 by at least 50 percent. Of course, the director’s cuts will still be available on the festival circuit, although lately a rarity due to the pandemic, and/or on Netflix, where Diaz’s films prefigured binge-watching so popular during quarantine, by at least a decade.

On Independence Day weekend what should come streaming free on YouTube courtesy of Paul Soriano’s Ten17P but Diaz’s Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis from 2016, translated as Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, winner of the Silver Bear jury prize in that year’s Berlinale.

Admittedly we failed to watch it when screened for the Cinema Evaluation Board during Holy Week four years ago, as it coincided with a son’s graduation down south.

So finally was able to catch it last Independence Day weekend, all eight hours of it, spread over early morning till late in the evening while doing assorted chores and errands. Am not one to argue that the director perhaps meant it that way, for film to be part of everyday life, one almost indistinguishable from the other.

Apart from turning our eyes glassy as the cellphone screen, Hele stands as one of Diaz’s more ambitious works, combining turn-of-century history with fictional characters from Jose Rizal’s novels, a sweeping narrative incorporating myth, failed revolution and rambling poetry.

Granted, it’s not something for usual mainstream theater consumption so used to Marvel and local rom-com, but then again Diaz and the rest of the indies seem to thrive when the odds are stacked against them.

The director is as usual a master of dialogue and visual composition, where he intersperses his varied philosophical meanderings much like his idol Tarkovsky does in a complete oeuvre of seven films. Come to think of it, three or four of Diaz’s films could easily surpass the running time of Tarkovsky’s life’s work.

And while there may be similarities between the directors’ works, longer here does not necessarily mean better — although Tarkovsky was fond too of lengthy exposition, with his films averaging at least three hours.

Piolo Pascual is the lead in Hele as Crisostomo Ibarra or Simoun, whom we recognize as a character from a Rizal novel, just as John Lloyd Cruz plays Isagani, Sid Lucero as Basilio, Ely Buendia as the musician, Susan Africa as Hule, Hazel Orencio as Gregoria de Jesus, Alessandra de Rossi as Ceasaria Belarmino, Bart Guingona as kapitan heneral, Joel Saracho as Mang Karyo, Cherrie Gil as one of the tikbalangs.

Together they inhabit the film in pairs or threes, in serial vignettes and discourse, traversing mountain trails and hitherto unseen forest pathways and assorted springs, through leaf and bog until one stumbles on a semblance of meaning in a kind of eureka moment, but certainly there is some lyricism to be found in the absurd.

Perhaps the finest achievement of Hele can be gleaned in the performances of the veteran actors Bernardo Bernardo as main tikbalang, and Menggie Cobarrubias as priest uncle in whose graces Simoun can finally seek shelter, both now since departed.

Bernardo’s horse neighs are for the ages, while Cobarrubias, who himself died of COVID in the last lost summer, is atypically understated, imparting a quiet but reassuring presence.

Maybe the latest streaming of Hele should be dedicated to them, actors whose devotion to craft could never be doubted, or else to our sad republic wracked by disease and closet fascists and jokers par excellence.

A writer for Rolling Stone once wrote, when one truly understands anything there can only be compassion, there can only be pity. Even if presently can’t be put down into words.

And who knows what the imminent normal holds in store, certainly more manageable editions of Lav Diaz in the commercial circuit, if and when this resumes, but please keep the originals intact and screening for the festivals and film classes, there being no better way to learn than by watching the poetry and excesses of the masters, alternately boring and inspiring the viewer.

“This guy, he rearranged my molecules,” was the famous quote of jury head Meryl Streep in Berlin.

Well apart from being an invitation to discourse, cinema must also open doors and rework the template enough to challenge all our previous notions of film as well its varied subgenres and mutations. It takes time like all good things, and if your eyes endure also worth the trouble.

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