Melancholia (2008)

Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half hour epic The Irishman is out in UK cinemas on Fri 8 November, ahead of it dropping on Netflix (for whom it was made), and it got me thinking about other very long films. I have a tag for such films, which I define as more than three hours, but it’s impossible to think of durational filmmaking without also thinking of Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, who has made his name making intensely long films, where something the length of Scorsese’s latest, something like Norte, the End of History, would be considered a fairly short work. In any case, I’m doing a themed week around excessively long films, so if you’re trying to watch what I’m writing about, you may well run out of time.

I don’t tend to do plot summaries in my write-ups (I hesitate to call them “reviews”) because that kind of thing can be discovered elsewhere, or by watching the film. For example, Melancholia‘s Wikipedia page has a pretty thorough summary that’s mostly quite accurate and yet I noticed at least one stretch of about an hour that took place between successive sentences of that summary, and that’s hardly an anomaly. Because that, after all, is Lav Diaz’s filmmaking, a man not unreasonably known as an avatar of the modern “slow cinema”. Melancholia does have more ‘plot’ than some of his other works (I’m thinking of Heremias or even Norte or A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery): the setup of two people and their zvengali-like ‘therapist'(?) who are enacting real-world role-playing scenarios suggests the theatre group in Out 1 gradually breaking up, ripping apart not just their interpersonal relations but the narrative of the film itself. There is, of course, a lot of wandering about in the jungle (particularly in the film’s last act), with Diaz’s beautiful fixed long shots of mountainous roads a familiar sight from anyone who’s seen any of his films. And within the film’s psychodrama, there’s a story of what I suppose is the Philippines itself, colonised and cast aside, featuring an elaborate end game that makes no sense except in the mind of the power-mad manipulator. I can’t really describe it better than that, I’m afraid; if you don’t like durational cinema, you may not find much that will sway you, but there are interesting games being played here.

Melancholia film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz; Starring Angeli Bayani, Perry Dizon; Length 450 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 31 March 2018.

Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History, 2013)

It’s been a few days since I saw this epically long slow-burning Philippine drama, but it builds up over its length an uncanny quality that still resonates in my mind. Partially that’s to do with the running time. When your movie is as long as four hours or more, and made up of slow-paced quietly observant scenes, it creates a different way of watching, allowing one to relax into it (at least if it’s a good film, which this one is). As such, my star rating may not really do it justice, but that’s only because I’m still coming to grips with director Lav Diaz’s project here.

There are a handful of central characters whose stories fade in and out during the movie. First seen is Fabian (Sid Lucero), who has just dropped out of his law degree and is holding forth with two of his professors in a campus coffee shop. Fabian has a deeply-held, but also deeply-skewed, sense of morality — that he in essence should have freedom to exercise the power to kill those he considers to be morally wrong — that somewhat horrifies his professors, but who laugh it off (as perhaps we the viewers do) as the earnest protestations of an overthinking young student playing with powerful new ideas. The other central characters are a poor couple, Eliza (Angeli Bayani) and Joaquin (Archie Alemania), who live in the same village as Fabian and whose hopes of opening a roadside food stall have only just been overtaken by crippling debt as the film starts, due to Joaquin having sustained a serious leg injury. They owe large amounts of money to an overbearing moneylender who refuses to extend them any further time or credit. It’s from this initial setup that the film unfolds, slowing creating an all-encompassing drama of, well, crime and punishment.

I say that because it slowly becomes clear that in Fabian and his noxious morality are echoes of Dostoyevsky’s famous protagonist Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. It’s clear from the little I’ve read about this film since that this was the director’s intention, though it’s been too long since I’ve read the Dostoyevsky novel to know how much else of it is reflected in the film. I suspect, in addition, that there’s a far richer and more suggestive background for those who are well-versed in recent Filipino history — the province where it’s set, Ilocos Norte, and which is referenced in the film’s title, was also the birthplace of controversial former president Ferdinand Marcos. Like these antecedents, perhaps, Fabian becomes progressively more single-minded, leading him to commit some pretty nasty deeds. However, the film has more than this going on, and in Joaquin it finds instead a sort of calm moral centre of goodness, an outlook he sustains despite his having been unjustly convicted for a crime of Fabian’s and locked away in a prison camp far from his wife and children.

The operation of fate here is implacable and operates quite separately from the protagonists’ actions and any entreaties to a higher power (Christian characters are seen occasionally, but the ineffectiveness of their belief seems almost comical, if not openly mocked). There is a particularly surprising death near the end — surprising as much for its off-hand presentation in a long quiet tracking shot, as the fact of it — and throughout the film, Diaz’s style of filmmaking, with its slow long takes tracking his central characters, hint that there will be some darker payoff that doesn’t always materialise. The long sequence that ends in the image shown on the poster included with this review is one such, as Eliza and her two children, by now long separated from Joaquin and suffering in extreme debt, walk slowly through the outskirts of the village towards the edge of a cliff, a metaphorical movement if ever there was one in this film.

This won’t be a film for people who like things to be all neatly wrapped up and accounted for by the end, but in some ways, the longer a film the more difficult that kind of resolution becomes. It’s certainly the case here, as we become integrated into the lives and places of these characters. And while there are various texts and histories in the background, the film is carried by its beautiful and starkly-framed cinematography, the camera moving fluidly and sinuously. The experience of the film with its extended sequences is like floating gently down a river, and indeed near the film’s end is featured a river, suggesting in its form the movement of time that the title would halt. But these lives, and this history, is destined to continue flowing.

Norte, the End of History film posterCREDITS
Director Lav Diaz; Writers Diaz and Rody Vera; Cinematographer Lauro Rene Manda; Starring Sid Lucero, Angeli Bayani, Archie Alemania; Length 250 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (Studio), London, Sunday 13 October 2013.