In continuing with my series on Lav Diaz, a filmmaker who I have just begun to discover and now revere as a modern giant after having seen Norte The End of History, the next film I decided to embark upon was the 6 ½ hour historical epic From What is Before. A solid two hours longer than the already lengthy Norte, this Diaz feature was a bit sparser, a little more dependent on sound and atmospherics of a geographic location and a cultural “whole” than an individual character study. Nonetheless, this film was yet another entrancing offering from Diaz, and his ability to weave so much unspoken socio-political density and insight through silent static imagery of the Filipino countryside, this time in gorgeous and haunting black and white, is something that rivals the cinematic artistry Bela Tarr (who I can only assume had at least some influence on Diaz’s career).
The exploration of The Philippines as a nation, politically, socially, and religiously continues here, but now from a historical context: The year 1972, when military dictator Ferdinand Marcos initiated Martial Law onto the nation. Much like Norte, the specter of political corruption and brutality existed during this time, but we don’t really feel it until we get towards the end of the film. Instead, the Philippines which exists for majority of the movie seems like a relic of the ancients. A hunter-gatherer society, only gradually showcasing its ties to the more modern world with, amongst other things, a saleswoman pitching mosquito tents and electronics, and the small technological gadgetry in the village shacks like a coffee maker and an iron. But this is still a place where clearly, the metaphysical and the spiritual phantoms of a pre-colonial era Philippines that once existed permeate through every frame of the film, be it figuratively through the pitter patter of the rain in the ominously dense and barely inhabited or disturbed jungle, the more reactionary death of livestock and unknown villagers automatically deemed an act of dark magic, or the literal shamanistic chantings of what seemed to me at least, a female witch doctor.
The characters in the film can be thought of as moving parts connected by a singular rural organism, similar to the communal farmers in Tarr’s Sátántangó. They live, move, and die together and their actions are wholly dependent on the fate of the land they reside in. Several actors from Norte make up the caste here as well, but in very different roles. Sito and his mischievous son Hakob try to make a meager living tending to buffalo for a landlord. They fall on even harder times when some of the buffalo are found dead and Sito is wrongfully blamed. Itang is a hard-working but naïve young woman who is burdened with tending to her mentally disabled sister Joselina, who she believes has the power to cure peoples ailments. She gives people in the village medicines and “magic” from Joselina’s powers to help cure them in exchange for money. The livelihood of the Philippines rural community, throughout the film, is self-sustaining, and although there are clear hardships and deprivations for many of the people there, they still seem to gravitate towards its comfort and a routine way of life they don’t mind living.
Also similar to Sátántangó is the sense of impending doom that that gradually starts to grow more and more real as the film goes on. What is unique about Diaz’s narrative is how our perception of this village community as isolated and in a sense “pristine” in its lack of shackles to any of our modern political weights changes to a realization that even this dense jungle of folks does not go unnoticed for possible blackmail and slaughter by a borderline tyrannical government. In a sense, visually, Diaz forms a timeline throughout the film that slowly shifts from pre-industrialization into a political military state. This seismic shift hits us without our knowing (in six and a half ours, the movie works in small increments like the changing of the hour-hand on a clock), and much like the villagers, it devastates our souls once we realize what has happened. Then, all of a sudden, in one sequence, it is slapped across our face. Just like in Tarr’s film, the nasty schemer Irmiás drops a hammer on the villagers in one devastating scene at a funeral, Marcos’s military encroachment is unveiled in a speech by a lieutenant who implores the villagers that what Marcos is doing is for “the good of the nation” (a claim that we can automatically assume means the opposite).
Diaz is as searingly unforgiving in this film as in Norte, but he is giving us a real context here. For those who don’t know the history of the Philippines, we get a sense of understanding through the fading of village life into a military-controlled hell that there is much suffering amongst the people of this nation that has not yet washed away. Sito is the only villager at the end of the movie who refuses to leave the village, staying in its dense jungle as a lone hermit, a Thoreau for who the Philippines that once was is his own personal Walden to which he is latching on for dear life. Lav Diaz, with From What is Before, makes his case for holding on as well.