Following on closely from Norte, The End of History (or at least if taking account only of UK release dates), Lav Diaz has constructed an even longer 338-minute epic, From What is Before. Apart from a few festival screenings, the film officially premiered on the MUBI subscription website.
From What is Before is set in a remote village in the Philippines. The film begins in 1970 and tracks a series of strange and often unexplained events – a burning house, the slaughter of cattle and the death of a stranger – through to the declaration of martial law in 1972.
A short synopsis may remind viewers of another slow, meditative black-and-white recent arthouse film, Haneke’s The White Ribbon. However, where Haneke’s film is mainly about the cruelty inherent in society and the weight of the intuition of impending crisis, Lav Diaz is interested in investing time in the landscapes he films with the characters he has created. Here, the parallels between the people and the places are frequently drawn – distant humans will suddenly appear in amongst the trees and foliage, giving the impression of hard lives led very close to nature. Alongside this sense of place, Diaz focuses on everyday chores and religious rituals to give a sense of the community, and often these activities will take place in a downpour or in high winds. What the film achieves here then, especially when the viewer invests the time and the attention, is a wholly believable and palpably tough sense of what life is like in these hard, remote places - although sometimes one may be moved to worry about the actors placed so close to some dangerous-looking waves.
Equally, and as with Norte, The End of History again, this means that when the film takes a darker turn – with the arrival of the soldiers and the beginning of martial law – it can be a bit of a shock. The film’s final scenes are convincingly horrible and desolate, and especially so since we have been granted so much time to appreciate the relative peace and normality of what has gone before. The soldier’s invasion of the village feels suitably invasive since we have gotten so used to watching the (relatively speaking) small, individual dramas of the villagers without ever having the impression of a stronger force in the wings. That said, the film’s focus on the tough lives led before the arrival of the soldiers (as well as the crimes carried out by the villagers, which includes a rape) would seem to suggest that the film’s major point is that life in the Philippines is tough, however you go about it.
The question that truly dogs the film, though, and one that will dog all films that are this long, is whether the film really needs to be as long as it is. Films can be slow and immersive without being so long, and as involving as the film is, the length is a drawback, since it will encourage viewers to watch in instalments (as I admittedly had to do) and hence lose the flow of the film’s images, sounds and tone. There are also certain moments were it feels that Daz’s aesthetics are the only reason that a cut is not being made, sometimes to the detriment of the characters or drama in a scene. Daz’s intention could be to show how implacable nature is throughout all of these small human dramas as in one powerful moment in which a suicide occurs off-screen while the camera focuses on the tide battering the coast, but it can equally feel like cruel inattention elsewhere.
The length then is a challenge, and it may require further knowledge of Diaz’s cinema or a better acquaintance with other long films before one can stop thinking of them as stunts or endurance tests. Diaz has a remarkable ability to pull you into his films and they do reward your patience though it may be the case that there is simply too much to take in on one fidgety viewing. There should always be new challenges in the cinema, and Diaz’s films are certainly one of those challenges, and it may be difficult to say anything about his work that doesn’t sound merely facile until more is known about them.
From What is Before is both simpler and more complex than Norte, The End of History in that it shows less and suggests more. I am not going to try to interpret the film’s many apparent meanings since I feel it will require a second and possibly a third viewing before the film’s entirety comes to light but, for my money, it is the superior film.