About a month ago now, From What Is Before (Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon) saw its world premiere at, appropriately enough, the World Premieres Film Festival in the Philippines, where it won the Grand Prize and another for Best Ensemble Performance. Yesterday, it screened in Competition in Locarno.
From Lav Diaz‘s director’s statement: “In 1972, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos proclaimed Martial Law plunging the entire Philippines into its darkest period. The epoch practically obscured everything that is essentially Filipino then. Marcos’s political methodology was clinical and brutal. The story of the film revolves around the lives of poor villagers in one of the remotest regions of the Philippines before Martial Law was declared. Loosely based on real events and characters, the film examines how an individual and collective psyche responds to extreme and mysterious changes in social and physical environment.”
Philippine film critic Renelson Morelos: “A sense of grim foreboding insidiously seeps into each of the villagers’ lives, hazily sensing but still unwary of the ‘dark curse’ (as one of the characters describes it) that is about to befall them soon—we have mainly two sisters, a farmer and his orphaned nephew, a liquor-maker, a priest, a balik-bayan poet, a village female shaman. And when the ‘day of proclamation’ has finally come, tragedy has already defined each of the characters [such] that the main event itself merely appears to cap things off. Before the iron rule has been finally made official, the village itself has long become the ‘village of the dead’ and its inhabitants, the ‘dead of the village.'”
“After last year’s comparatively compact, in-color Cannes entry Norte, the End of History,” writes Clarence Tsui in the Hollywood Reporter, “From What Is Before signals a return to the aesthetics the filmmaker has made his own: It’s filmed in beautiful black-and-white, has a static but meticulously designed mise-en-scene and clocks in at over five and a half hours. The film is also the product of a bare-bones crew, some of whom also play important parts in the film…. Whereas there are still long takes aplenty, most of them startlingly exquisite, the film feels, for once, very urgent in relaying the faultlines of real Filipino history. While Norte is more a metaphor about Marcos and his near-fascist legacy dressed up as a crime-and-punishment tale, From What Is Before is set in a distinct era with characters actually discussing (and dealing with) real politics.”
“This country is built on the sins of its citizens, Diaz seems to be proclaiming.” Oggs Cruz: “Marcos, and everything that has happened thereafter, are but products of our own inhumanity and complacency…. What Diaz has done is to distil centuries of the country’s sorrows and agonies into a fascinatingly fractured narrative that will never ever leave you.”
Viewing (2’11”). Locarno‘s got a few excerpts.
And here you’ll find more on the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s slow-motion Lav Diaz retrospective.
Update, 8/9: For Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn, “despite the breadth of the ensemble, one character looms above all: the location. Setting the action almost exclusively within the barrio’s confines never limits its visual sophistication, as Diaz captures remarkable sequences on open fields and across a majestic beach where the waves constantly whip against hulking rock formations. The endless chaos of nature embodies the abstract threat of imminent destruction; by imbuing these shots with a combination of mystical allure and darker possibilities, Diaz creates a haunting atmosphere that makes it possible to absorb the story even when it slows to a crawl.”
Update, 8/11: “Until the film’s true cards are finally illuminated, you become lulled by Before‘s subtle rhythms, the emphasis on nature, rocks, waves, the sounds of the forest,” writes Adam Cook in the Notebook. “But as layer by layer is peeled back, the dark, aching core of the film takes over.”
Update, 8/13: For James Lattimer, writing in a dispatch to the House Next Door, From What Is Before is “at once an endurance test of sorts and an opportunity to create a level of narrative and visual detail that pays ever-greater dividends as the film progresses…. Suggesting a microhistorical examination of the early-’70s adoption of martial law in the Philippines filtered through the prism of a 19th-century novel of ideas, the film marries the specific to the universal in truly masterful fashion, the villagers’ collective, inescapable sins finding their savage echo in the bloodthirsty conflict raging around them, kept pointedly out of view until the final image.”
Update, 8/16: From What Is Before has won the Golden Leopard and Giovanni Marchini Camia notes that the film marks “the third time [Diaz has] addressed the era of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos—’the Filipino nightmare,’ as he describes it—completing a chronologically inverted trilogy: 2001’s Batang West Side depicts the nightmare’s aftermath, examining the plight of Filipinos living in Jersey City, Filipino Family spans its duration from 1971 to 1987, and From What Is Before hauntingly explores its genesis…. Philippine history is afflicted by analogous mendacity and the purpose of Diaz’s cinema is, in his own words, to ‘reclaim what’s been lost’—cinema, he says, is about ‘digging for truth, just like philosophy.'”
Also writing for Filmmaker, Paul Dallas: “At the director’s entertaining public Q&A last week, he happily talked shop—how he starts with a location before anything else; how he writes a script during a shoot; and how he never films unless the light is right: ‘We don’t push things. We wait.’ … The film is violent, angry and also visually ravishing, if exhausting. Asked if he is generally pessimistic, Diaz responded, ‘Pessimism is the start of rebirth.’ In his eyes, From What Is Before is statement against political repression and for artistic freedom. It’s a rebellion against his country’s historical amnesia and a middle finger to Hollywood and mainstream manners: ‘I’m trying to liberate my cinema from the system. It’s a simple as that.'”
“From What Is Before is, in every respect, a film about what it means to be Malian after historical cataclysms annihilated a whole culture and did away with personal identities,” writes Alexandra Zawia at Micropsia.