Somewhere around the 300th minute of Lav Diaz’ immaculately chiseled glacier, the two most prominent characters have a discussion about art. Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz) believes that it is too romantic a notion to think that art can save the world, but Simoun (Piolo Pascual) encourages him not to give up writing poetry and singing lullabies because only through art can true emancipation be achieved. In the context of “A Lullaby To The Sorrowful Mystery,” this emancipation is directly linked to Pilipino liberation from an oppressive Spanish rule of over 300 years. In a 480-minute sea of conversations, it is one of the more jolting discourses because of its meta nature. The core of Lav Diaz’ intention with his most personal film to date is unmistakably shackled to the idea of emancipating the spirit of his homeland through art. To get even more poetic about it, you could take it even further and say it’s about liberating that abstract, ineffable concept we call “soul” from the human condition.
As aesthetically dazzling as this picture is, with hypnotic compositions carved through meticulous mise-en-scene, there are certain conventional lines which — when crossed — must warrant good reason. In this case, the activity on the screen must be immersive and interesting enough to balance out the physical endurance asked of the viewer by the creator. For a film that lasts eight hours, or one third of an entire day, that’s already a high mountain to climb. When you add that it’s in black-and-white, without a score, entirely made up of static-camera shots (there are, maybe, five slight camera movements in all), composed of discussions in mainly Spanish and Filipino, and almost entirely devoid of a sense of humor? That’s a whole different level of endurance. Whether it’s a romantic notion to think of art as a saving grace or not is a fundamentally fascinating intellectual debate, but there’s another relevant question that can be put more bluntly: must art be so hard to endure?
None of this will be new to those familiar with the director’s modus operandi (who sticks to all of the above conditions for every film and, with this one, brings his average running time to about six hours), so let me be crystal clear: diehard fans of Lav Diaz will adore ‘Lullaby.’ This expansive and richly detailed story is to the screen what “War and Peace” is to literature. Tracing various character paths and threads throughout the Philippine Revolution of 1896-97, the embroidery on display through calculated measures that redefine patience weave urban legends, local traditions, real-life artistic expressions with the most sensitive chapter of Philippine history. Following the sorrowful Isagani and Basilio (Sid Lucero) as they attempt to capture the infamous, mysterious Simoun, or the mythical and sorrowful Gregoria de Jesus (Hazel Orencio), whose own reputation forms a search party for the mysterious Andres Bonifacio, the exalted Father of the Revolution, is something diehard fans will gladly embrace. In my case — and in case you’re curious, I am a Lav Diaz fan, but this movie has made me realize that I’m no diehard — there are too many ebbs in the flow that prevent me from justifying the elephantine duration. It’s films like these, more than actual literary adaptations, that best illuminate the true difference between reading a book and watching a film. You can always put down “War and Peace” and come back to it at a later time. Unlike other directors of lengthy films (think Miguel Gomes and “Arabian Nights”), Diaz’ intends you to watch his film from start to finish. He makes no chapters, there is no intermission; the very nature of the time you put into watching his films is part of his experiment and artistic expression.
Diaz is a naturally gifted filmmaker, clearly a master of his craft and all-knowing creator of his very own genre of film, so I was naturally enthralled with certain characters and conversations. The old, cackling Tikbalang (Bernardo Bernardo), who cries out, “you’re full of microbes!” and neighs and brays? Impossible not to be mesmerized every time he’s on screen. The conversations Captain General (Bart Guingona) has with Simoun and others, listening to him expand on human nature while exhibiting the very worst of it through a veiled evil; wholly compelling stuff. The phantasmagoria elicited from the smoke and fumes of caves and forests tickle every bone of my body. The anguish, pain, and longing emanating from all of the characters, whose names are so often repeated in conversations to create a soothing, anesthetic rhythm, often traveled through the screen and into the marrow of my senses. The beauty of the songs and poems touched me, the plight of the characters even more so, the aspect of learning a whole new world about the Philippine Revolution was gratifyingly cerebral. String that all together and translate it into screen-time, and I’ve just described what is only about 4 hours of the film. Therein lies the issue.
Cinematography and painterly production design can hold attention for so long. But when you have a character walking silently around a forest for a whole minute, collapsing by a gravestone, in the 6th hour of your film, chances are that the audience will not be able to appreciate the scene the way its creator intends them to. Unless, of course, Lav Diaz’s intentions are not for any audience to do anything, in which case he’s making films for himself and not the world. That’s a subject for another debate. Larry Manda’s cinematography and Popo Diaz’ production design are breathtaking in every sense of the word. But once you’re out of breath, you start to choke, and, all of a sudden, watching a film turns into a physical feat. As endlessly fascinating as ‘Lullaby’ is to think about (once you’ve had a good day’s rest, in any case), and as much as the pristine black-and-white photography feels like a divine gift to witness, the purest, most emancipated thought of all is simple: it’s just too damn long, and it doesn’t reach the artistic level of a “Satantango” to wholly warrant the time spent with it. [B-]