kinokiez #1: A Lullabye to the Sorrowful Mystery

This is long: ethnographically long. It’s so long that there are more articles about how long it is than there are about what’s in it. The length is to be expected from Lav Diaz: this is his Thing. Others of his films are 593, 540 and 450 minutes. This one is 485.

A Lullabye is about the Philippines and its history as a colony of Spain – a subject it doesn’t succeed in making it much less obscure than it will necessarily be to a non-Filipino audience, knowing more, as they are likely to do, about rizlas than about Rizal. But I think we are too literal if we say it is about Rizal, Andrés Bonifacio, Gregoria de Jesús, the Katipunan and all that. The film doesn’t (entirely) fail if it doesn’t make this history much more intelligible to us than it was before we sat intoning ‘I’ve started so I’ll…’ through its eighth and last hour. For it is about rape, really. It’s about the intolerable pain not of having lost one’s innocence but of having had it taken away.

Or say it is an exercise in excavation. In it Diaz uses the cinema to show us how sheerly deep is the wound a colonised people can carry within itself, even a century after achieving independence. Poring over the past, it finds that the loss the Filipinos suffered and still lament was no accident at all. And it ascribes its complaint – which is traditionally a religious one – to the historical contingency of having been colonised.

For connoisseurs of postcolonial culture the film Diaz has made is essential. It is part of that canon – if canon is the word.

Because A Lullabye is long and in black and white one thinks of Tarr, and its lugubriousness is like his, but it has none of his rhythm or of the sense of elliptical purpose that saves his films from pseudopostmodern cliché. At times the film is amateurish* (see). Playing Simoun, Piolo Pascual has to pretend to be dying for three hours; this regrettably taxes what turns out to be too modest a repertoire of moans and groans. Some of the shotmaking is startling, but Diaz’s camera is too inert to lend any life to the long, inconsequential tête-à-têtes that make up most of the film’s length.

Diaz is a ‘writer-director’, but, like most directors, he can’t write write, and he shouldn’t let his writing do his directing for him. He has stories to tell, but shows little interest in drama. That is, he is reluctant to compromise the emotional impulse by any editorial imposition of suspense or any application of authorial guile. So the work’s simple shapelessness vouchsafes a kind of episodic integrity, as inartistic as it is earnest. Restless audiences may be moved to remind him that filmmakers are not only witnesses. They are seducers also, ensnaring us into being entertained.

I have not seen a longer film in the cinema. I didn’t like it.

3/10 | ☆☆

*On the big screen in black and white the digital photography looked as lacklustre and uncinematic as it usually does. For my taste the picture yielded by digital techniques is too crisp, civil, unchaotic.

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