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‘Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis’: A passionate film about the fate of the Philippines

There are movies that entertain us. Then there are movies that make us think. They make us endure the filmgoing experience. And the best ones...well, they can be quite the experience. 

"Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis" (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery) is a 485-minute passion project written and directed by Lav Diaz, and produced with Bianca Balbuena and Paul Soriano. Yes, that’s right: 485 minutes. That is eight hours long. Do not fret, movie theatres are providing 20-minute breaks after every two hours or so. I recommend you do your business during those breaks.

The film has two stories being told alongside each other. One story focuses on Gregoria De Jesus (Hazel Orencio) and her search for the missing bodies of Andres Bonifacio and his brother Procopio. She is accompanied by Caesaria Belarmino (Alessandra de Rossi), the woman who brought about the fall of the Katipunan, and by other acquaintances (Susan Africa, Joel Saracho). 

The second story follows the journey of Crisostomo Ibarra (Piolo Pascual) and Simoun (John Lloyd Cruz) to a secluded area to have the former's gunshot wound checked and treated. 

The characters are a mixture of the historical and imaginary, the latter being an extra mixture of literary and mythological. It is a hodgepodge of Filipino symbolisms.

Personifications of the Tikbalang (played by Cherie Gil, Bernardo Bernardo, and Angel Aquino) trick Filipinos for their amusement. A religious sect led by Sebastian Caneo (Ronnie Lazaro) worships the fabled Bernardo Carpio. Then there are the characters from Jose Rizal’s novels. Ibarra is on the run for instigating revolution in his native country. And Basilio (Sid Lucero) is looking for Elias’ lost riches under the Balete tree.

It is a brand of magic realism that is more rooted on realism than on magic, much like how "Game of Thrones" portrays dragons and mythical beings. In the film’s context, it works. It is the Philippines you know by heart, but it is also a type of Philippines that is removed from reality. Because this is how Diaz sees the Philippines, or, rather, Filipinas. However, that distinction proved problematic towards the end when the characters started preaching their conclusions.

In his Filipinas, everything is monochromatic, atmospheric, and is always at the fangs of revolution. Larry Manda, the director of photography, was responsible for this distinctive style which can only be described as a mixture of film noir and old German expressionism. The exaggeration of lights and shadows highlight the tension between characters.

You see, Diaz is a type of filmmaker who does not like to move close. His frames are static and remain at a specific distance from the characters. He does this to let the story or the intent organically spill out of the scene. He does not use techniques like close-ups which can be an easy way of attaining emotional response from the viewers. If ever his camera does move, it is to reduce any interfering element in the scene. 

It is this cold approach to filmmaking that makes his films read like a book. The static framing lets viewers notice everything within a frame, from the obstructions in front of the camera to the movements of the characters and the path they are going to take. The scenes linger, sometimes without dialogue. When the dialogue comes, it comes amidst scenes already pregnant with meaning. Close-ups are not necessary. His framing does all that.  

The actors, all bringing their A-game, welcome this little exercise of creative endurance. The nuances they bring to their characters are evident. Because they are not restricted by technicalities like close-ups and reverse angles, they let their dialogues come out naturally—although there are some lines delivered awkardly. That aside, there are no false notes in the cast. They were all committed to the Diaz’s vision and it showed.

As much as "Hele" is admirable, I do not think this is Diaz's magnum opus. "Norte, the End of History" feels like a better film due to its compact storytelling and nuanced cuts. It also demonstrated Diaz’s  skill as a master of slow, intricate storytelling.

"Hele" at times felt like Diaz was just expressing his frustrations about the current state of society rather than telling a story. That said, it is still highly recommendable. It is almost needless to say that it won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the recent Berlin International Film Festival, even if the jury was not very familiar with the minute details of Filipino culture and history. 

During a time when superhero films are filling movie theaters, it is good to hear news that "Hele" managed to have sold-out screenings. Go watch it and the other Diaz films. Tolerate the long hours if you must. Because at the end of the day, "Hele" is made for the Filipino people. It sings of lullabies filled with Filipino emotions and cries for our freedom. No one else will hear that. And no one else will listen. — AT, GMA News

"Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis" is open in selected theatres nationwide. Expect subtitles.