Come to think of it, the cinema of Lav Diaz is seemingly and perhaps determinedly anti-narrative. What he gives his audience is a series of black-and-white brushstrokes, beautifully conceived and designed images of a camera as an observer, immobile yet providing richness in the texture of details. Oh, those long lingering static shots that can be uncomfortable and disturbing for those so trained with the quick-cuts, go-see-this sort of Bonamine inducing editing. Instead his viewer is soaked, hopefully absorbed into the grandeur of his vision.
That is why Lav Diaz movies never work on small screens: he is a filmmaker as artist --- because you need the overwhelming larger than life image to bring you into his universe and not the minuscule interpretation. The eeriness of his black-and-white images brings about a mystifying surrealism even to the most mundane whether they are details of trash strewn on the courtyard of Quiapo Church or the largeness of both sky and land in the pier of Mindoro. He challenges you to sit there and be part of his world according to his terms: that means eight hours of Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis or God knows how many hours of Ebolusiyon. Diaz, as a filmmaker, does not compromise: you either take him or avoid him.
Like Brilliante Mendoza, the other maverick Filipino director of international renown, you need to acquire or develop a certain mindset to appreciate the rules they are creating as well as the laws of cinema they are deliberately violating to reinterpret the art form all on their own.
Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left) is one of Lav Diaz' more audience-friendly films. It runs close to four hours, about the same length of time as his other work, Norte. But what makes Humayo most celebrated is the fact that it is the Filipino film that has won the highest honor in one of the most respected international film festivals. By bagging the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, Diaz has duplicated what seemed like an impossible dream for Filipino filmmakers. In the same year, he won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Filmfest for Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (Lullaby for the Sorrowful Mysteries) then outdoing himself with this Venice piece.
(And what a year this has been. Brilliante Mendoza's Ma Rosa also catapulted the Filipino actor into a rightful place in the constellation of artists to be feted in a most revered film festival. Whereas Mendoza's victory as Best Director for Kinatay (Butchered) was a benchmark in Filipino film history, Jacklyn Jose's win as Best Actress in the Cannes International Film Festival was unprecedented.)
Finally Humayo has opened in Manila only after the international audiences saw this much-awaited piece weeks ahead. Yes, this may not be the kind of entertainment that those weaned into thinking that going to movies is to be titillated or tickled pink by the antics of young love teams, the urgency to see such pieces goes beyond being sophisticated or esoteric. Yes, there will be those who will be intimidated by the fact that this is nearly four hours of black-and-white cinema screening --- or that there is no 1980's theme song to hook the viewer into a hummable moment.
Humayo is disturbingly quiet as it is haunting. It is in the very heart of the loneliness of the characters portrayed that there is such silence ... and even eeriness. Devoid of music (except for some unaccompanied sing-along moment between two lead actors), watching the film is like going into a vacuum --- where only the black and white photography (shot by Lav Diaz himself) becomes the center of the unfolding of what seems to be a story.
But it is not really a story: it is about Horacia (Charo Santos), a third grade teacher wrongly accused of murder and released from prison after thirty years. Unquestionably, the entire three hours plus-plus of Humayo is about Horacia --- and her return to the outside world as she tries to reassemble all the shattered pieces of her life as well as plot her revenge against the man who framed her for murder (Michael de Mesa). Indeed, Humayo centers on the onscreen return of Charo Santos. After years of absence from performing on the big screen, Santos mounts the comeback to end all comebacks.
Bluntly put, if you are going to return to acting in front of a camera to show what stuff you are made of despite years of absence, then it better be mind-boggling. When ABS-CBN's M'am Charo returned, it was not even for a locally released production directed by any of the seasoned and celebrated directors of their movie arm (which she also heads, by the way). It had to be Lav Diaz --- and the invitation to Venice was the icing on the cake.
It was not only Horacia who returned but also Charo. The vulnerability of the character, enhanced by her love for writing and telling stories to her prison inmates and their children --- then later on to the derelicts of the streets of Calapan who she befriended --- added an aching charm to the portrayal. That familiar voice heard every week in the drama anthology she hosts achieves a totally different dimension when we hear the stories she creates in her mind to encapsulate the pain and anguish of Horacia. It is these stories that Horacia writes that summarizes all the contradictory emotions in her being as she becomes the personification of a victim of injustice.
The kindness of heart of Horacia was what made her a magnet to all the marginal characters she encountered in her journey for revenge. The denizens of the night, the scumbags of the day --- all of them gravitate around Horacia as she shows them unimaginable (and nowadays, incredible) kindness that touches their heart. There was the homeless and mentally deranged Mameng (Jean Judith Javier) who lived in the church premises, the hunchback balut vendor appropriately called Kuba (Nonie Buencamino) and the Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), an epileptic transvestite who stalked the side streets of the city consciously inviting death to come and get him so as to validate whatever is left of his useless life.,
All the characters are recipients of Horacia's kindness of heart --- while at the same time witnessing her darkest side. Underneath the soft spoken and gentle woman willing to share, help and teach lurks a violent, revenge-seeking monster whose brazenness and strength came from thirty years of enduring and surviving her undeserved incarceration. Santos' memorable performance was so enhanced and given much greater depth and brilliance because of the equally outstanding rendition of their roles of Javier, Buencamino and Cruz.
But perhaps one of the most exceptional moments of this film is that scene where Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael de Mesa), the man who destroyed the life of Horacia, attempts to look for a deeper meaning to God in a quiet and somewhat casual conversation with a priest. The scene is short, static and calm but revealed a much greater understanding of villain seeking an explanation for his weaknesses --- counterpointing Horacia's fear of her own weaknesses overpowering reason. De Mesa did not need too many scenes or too much dialogue to prove what caliber of an actor an original Eigenmann can show the audiences.
Ang Babaeng Humayo is a cause of celebration. It may not be the kind of movie to please everyone but then it never made any claims of being just a movie. In the end, true to form, you leave the cinema disturbed and with so many questions. This is what distinguishes Humayo from what else is showing today in moviehouses. You go home thinking not only about what you have seen but about the moral dilemmas embodied by the characters and the greatness of the Filipino artist --- as director and as actors --- in the international arena.
That is why being intimidated by a Lav Diaz movie is not only a manifestation of cowardice: it is a loss of gaining a unique and beautifully Filipino experience.