The free spirited director of Philippine Indie Cinema Lav Diaz returns with Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis/A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, the very film that won him a Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale Film Festival. Hele is about “the search for the body of Andres Bonifacio”, but apart from being a huge-scaled adventure, there seems to be so much more to it than just that.
With Hele, master filmmaker Lav Diaz constructs a compendium of stories about the Philippines’ past. He brews a mammoth telling of history, myths, fiction and literature, with each of them having a certain twist to the gigantic tale. The fine lines between these stories’ borders gets crossed over. In turn, an awakening tale of ourselves – the Filipino people gets aesthetically formed. In the stretch of 8 hours, you are taken away from reality as you get transported to a cinematic utopia of deep understanding and captivation. What awaits is pure bliss where time never seems to be a distraction right as you visit an inky landscape of history. While you get lost in it, a different kind of filmic durability is let in, and it seems to be the reason why it never gets dull even for a short while. It possesses a powerful capacity to knock our senses within that duration for it carries so much for our hearts and minds to take in. There is history, there is truth, and we all get exposed to it. Though it tends to stay that way, it still managed to become a historical drama that veered away from the usual in spite of seemingly having the same themes as the films of its kind. What it has in store lets us completely contemplate on ourselves as Filipinos, but in a different manner that almost doesn’t make us take pride in our nationality. Quite a bold move, and quite argumentative, but as a whole it turned into something that changes our perspectives on the past that we had. It entirely transforms from being a historical pic to a marvelous contemplative insight into the past for having the courage to be such.
There is a very melancholic atmosphere at the helm, and it never becomes lively – not even once. There are almost no heroes to look up to, and that never even seemed to be a problem in terms of its narrative. The characters remain to be hopeful, but what replaces that is total dreariness in the darkness of the circumstance. That is a major element that the film expresses heavily, and it even manages to afflict pain on those who are witnessing these incidents/events clouded in gloom. These stories are told with a monstrous passion – a passion that remains constantly willing and eager to bring out whatever it is that it wants to. Just like Norte, that “passion” represents Lav Diaz’s thoughts. It is dark and arguably intense and questionable but what he puts on film doesn’t just seem to stay on the screen even after it ends. These stories that get made and told are put into a light that shines on surrealism, and they are extremely convincing in being so. It is a potent mix of aesthetic and narrative, and the result that it becomes is factually gorgeous yet strange. That almighty blend leads to one path and in that path, a great opportunity lies. That opportunity is to present a mind-blowing brew of reality and fiction wherein our past gets depicted in a dark demeanor. Dark enough to let us see past the sinful flaws in the early Filipinos’s morality, which is rather something that has always been seen as revolutionary and bold. Its story is one that is painted with blackness and despondency, fully achieved to make us look down on the woeful flaws that errs our very nation. This film seemingly steers clear from the idea what makes us Filipinos, and shows us the opposite. This could be a hard case to defend, but with the manner of Lav’s expression of it, there might be nothing better to do than to accept that fact. It is Philippine cinema at its most vulnerable, and it just cries at its knees for its subject matters.
It weeps for us and our nation and in every second of its length, it bleeds with agony as it confesses a heart-shattering truth. That truth being a grim past that is in need of realization for how severe and affecting they have been. From the way it looks to the way it sounds, there is no denying that everything seems so alarming. How the characters speak and the greatness that lies in their actors’ performances might even make you shed a tear in how they depict themselves. That is why Hele becomes one of those films that makes you question whether you are watching a “film” or not. How it presents itself to its viewers acts like a mirror – a mirror that points out to our dark past. Aside from that, Diaz also manages to mesh in Philippine mythology with history without resorting to a full-blown exposure of the creatures. It is all subtle and it brings out the beauty for being such. His depiction of Tikbalang/s are very unusual yet admirable – his vision of these beings suits the film in excellence, and also allowed for excitement and even fun. Something that you rarely acquire from a Diaz flick because of the treatment of tones and the themes themselves. Moreover the entire storyline is mammoth; there is so much to tell, and every single point was worthy of being elaborated even briefly. The fact that it sends out a great message doesn’t even make it just a film. It goes past that for having a beating heart and a burdened soul – two things that makes it “breathe” and “alive” as a work of art. There is absolutely a lot to it, and its colossal storyline stresses it all out in pain. While it revolves around that main element, it shoves to us more than we can take. However even if it does so, it becomes hard to refuse since it glares with appeal and attraction like any of Diaz’s works. To put it in simple words, it is yet another project that exhibits Diaz’s adroitness and his mastery of the film’s extensive scope as well as his sophisticated elaboration of subject matters and themes. In the end, everything that it wants us to absorb gets ingested by our attentive minds. Lav Diaz’s delicate dedication to expound on this is evident in the story’s enigmatic yet almost ambiguous effect. From what you can sense, there almost isn’t a real plot that gets played with. It is a series of interconnected tales and it culminates into one big story; a story about us, a story about the Filipino’s suffering. Yet is one that never prides itself about a past that we have all been proud of from all the (seemingly) triumphant revolts that have occurred before. This is a very grave topic that gets fed to our souls, and it does so by violently knocking up our conscious back and forth – in a manner akin to a blade piercing the very depths of our minds. Its harsh ideas are poetically mirrored in its lead characters – one innocent (Isagani) and one regretful soul who has been drowned in the suffering (Simoun).
Both Piolo and John Lloyd Cruz delivered their roles with reverence and sincerity along with their co-stars. Every single one that is seen onscreen exploited a huge opportunity to show off their acting skills and each of them graced it with their talents. Only in a rather unorthodox manner that lets us contemplate about their words and doings instead of letting us get stunned by their delivery of lines like any other film. Alessandra de Rossi and Hazel Orencio’s performances are spot-on as they managed to pour out all of their feelings in their almost emotionally forceful delivery. The whole cast are experimented on, and the experiment proved to be a total success as you go through it. Hele becomes the reason why we watch films – the feeling that it gives is overwhelmingly potent as it leaves you with so much to ponder on. Experiencing the wholeness of its cinematic power is definitely something to get blown away with – not only because of its length, but specifically because of how it wants to be seen; a cinematic blessing heaved by a highly proficient filmmaker. It wants to be viewed as a theatrical collection of the Filipinos’ moral faults and it could be seen in more than one way. Its means to jam so much detail into our minds with understanding is so immense that its capabilities as a film is almost untouchable.
The film speaks to its viewers on many different levels with each moment loudly screaming the veracity of the circumstances and the gravity of the situation. At times, it even feels like a dark poem that echoes the even darker times that we have been in. Things are lyrical and are laid out in poignant somberness, with each moment bringing in feelings of misery from start to end. We get manipulated by it and we even get persuaded. In spite of the run-time, there simply isn’t any reason to get bored with. Even in its slowest bits, it still keeps you engaged and never gives you any reason whatsoever to leave the theater. Diaz once again shows his assiduousness by thoroughly paying utter attention to detail, and for that he attains the ability to keep us amazed all throughout. Every shot that gets displayed is prolonged, and has so much going on in it; allowing us to taste the richness that lies beneath all of it. Even if it spans for some long hours, it never gets exhausted in feeding us everything and doing it so eagerly. It is one of the factors that makes it so abundant in filmic prowess. The silent vibe rings in one’s ears, almost as if it buzzes with its crestfallen daintiness.
Hele is a rare miracle, and that is one of the biggest reasons why you just shouldn’t just let it pass you by. This is a sanctified cinematic grace of all sorts, and the amount of enduring grandeur makes it classifiable as a feat that simply just couldn’t be replicated even if others attempt to. It bottles entertainment and art, and the mix is ultimately and genuinely divine. This is truly an offer that one should never ever refuse, but for what reason should one deny such a soulfully crafted masterpiece? Hele stands as the Filipino’s pride for its skilled mastery in detailing the grimness of our past. Not only for that but mainly because of how director Lav Diaz awakened us and kept us aware of this all in an aesthetically moving and always enthralling tour de force of passion and reflection. There is just simply no reason to NOT witness this gargantuan filmic marvel.
(The rating implies that you go see Hele before it’s gone. Go now! Quickly!)
* Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis is now showing in select Philippine cinemas from Star Cinema. Rated PG by the MTRCB.