Essential truths, unspeakable grace

BLITZ REVIEW - Juaniyo Arcellana - The Philippine Star
Essential truths, unspeakable grace
Essential Truths of the Lake, which recently premiered in Locarno, is directed by Lav Diaz.
STAR / File

A scene or two always stands out from a Lav Diaz film, and in the case of Essential Truths of the Lake recently premiered in Locarno, it is the procession of religious novices reciting what sounds like a local version of the Hail Mary in the countryside in the dead of night, nearing the end of this film.

Essential continues the saga of a character first introduced in Kapag Wala Nang mga Alon, Lt. Hermes Papauran (John Lloyd Cruz), top police investigator, thrust in the quagmire of the previous administration’s war on drugs, as he secures permission from his superior and mistah, the colonel (Agot Isidro), to reopen a case on the disappearance of Philippine eagle advocate Esmeralda Stuart (Shaina Magdayao) 15 years since it was docked unsolved.

John Lloyd Cruz is Lt. Hermes Papauran, top police investigator thrust into the quagmire of the previous administration’s war on drugs.

The collaboration between Diaz and Cruz is storied in itself, and they seem to bring out the best in each other in terms of creativity, while trying to steer clear of the attendant indulgences that come with the territory of stark lyricism. Since the pandemic and well into its postmortem, it is the actor who has been the director’s alter ego spanning three or four films.

There is, however, a noticeable change in lead character’s demeanor after the depiction of the eruption of Taal Volcano, which in fact erupted in early 2020 and from which the director culled separate footage, now found useful in the present narrative. Papauran suddenly has long hair, as if the volcano had gifted him with a thicker head of hair fertilized by ashfall.

As usual there could be more than one film in Essential, and here the alternate storyline is the documentary being made by Jane Liway (Hazel Orencio) on Stuart, whose advocacies and mysterious disappearance are the hub and key of the indiscernible truths mentioned in title.

Shaina Magdayao is Philippine eagle advocate Esmeralda Stuart.

There are fleeting glimpses of the pubis of Magdayao, or is that really her, during birdlike performances done with a dance troupe, with background music provided by Lirio Salvador’s Elemento worthy of shaming the elementals; and when activists shout slogans such as Iligtas ang unggoy! and iligtas ang monkey eating eagle!, this becomes just another inconsistency one has to get over in order to move on.

The director expectedly thrives on one-on-one dialogue between main characters to drive the exposition forward, most notably between Papauran and the prime suspect in Stuart’s disappearance, as played by Bart Guingona, as well as others between Papauran and the colonel, the lieutenant and Liway, the investigator and an old man on the volcano’s foothills (Dido dela Paz), as well the repartee with a woman named Melchora (a wonderfully restrained Susan Africa).

Lac Diaz

Yet very little is known of Stuart who remains an enigma throughout, however garnering limited sympathy from the audience rendered almost numb from another test of endurance, as if the day to day of living in post-pandemic Philippines under a laidback dispensation were not stressful enough, but that is how it plays out, let the cards fall where they may.

Essential may thus be a prequel to Mga Alon, and could be an indirect tribute to Diaz’s former collaborator, the late production designer and painter Dante Perez, whose last show at Art Informal had a piece titled in possible paraphrase, My heart lies still at the bottom of the lake.

Else a salute and homage to the feminine principle, in what could be the director’s most feminist strain, in this wise any gaslighting is reduced to shadows flickering in the corners of a beautiful mind.

What then to make of all this useless beauty, and the subsequent disappearance of Melchora among other women as if abandoned by the story itself. We get a hint of the dead end when Papauran weeps on his knees while embracing a woman whose son was extrajudicially slain, so that viewer starts to wonder who the villain and who the hero and how lines blur between the two.

Hail Mary full of grace, the film ends with an image that is a revised Pieta, and could the director’s abandonment of cinema be at hand? Surely not before the Papauran trilogy is completed, even if at times it feels like twisting the knife in a procession of novices clad in white.

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