An intimate epic made with uncompromising and austere seriousness, Lav Diaz’s “Evolution of a Filipino Family” patiently and methodically observes the collapse and hopeful revival of a poor farming clan, meant to symbolize a nation’s history spanning 1971 to 1987. Ten-hour running time, radically slow pace and hyperminimalist mise en scene will excite international cinephiles at the most daring fests and showcases, which are the only conceivable venues outside of homevid.
According to Diaz, exhib plans do not include TV broadcast. Lensed over nine years in black-and-white video, pic is twice as long as Diaz’s acclaimed “Batang West Side” — and, at the Toronto fest, was unconscionably scheduled with just one 10-minute intermission. However, “Evolution” justifies its extraordinary length with an approach that will recall, for Western viewers at least, vestiges of Bela Tarr, Samuel Beckett, Frank Norris and William Faulkner.
The making of “Evolution” actually precedes Diaz’s debut 1999 pic, “The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion,” and yet there’s no visible sense of the cast aging incongruously before viewers’ eyes. Rather, the story’s 16-year passage is organically used so cast members playing Diaz’s family grow older ever so gradually; it’s like slowly turning the pages of a photo album. By the time central character Raynaldo (Elryan De Vera) has grown from child to near adult, the full power of Diaz’s unusual shooting method packs a surprising wallop.
Diaz counters the local popular taste for intense action, ultraviolence and melodrama with a tale containing major incidents separated by long stretches of everyday life captured in nearly real time, punctuated by musical interludes, ironically staged soap-opera radio broadcasts and docu footage of political events. It’s a mix that seems deliberately designed to go against every cliche of standard Filipino cinema.
Epic’s course takes a family headed by matriarch grandmother Puring (Angie Ferro) from the rice paddies in the early ’70s to the dog-eat-dog urban streets in the late ’80s, when Ferdinand Marcos’ brutal regime is finally deposed.
Early signs of familial disharmony involve Gilda, Raynaldo’s mentally ill mom (Marife Necisito), who’s increasingly incapable of raising the boy, whom she dubs “the king of ants.” Raynaldo’s uncle, Kadyo (Pen Medina), rescues Raynaldo at a cliff’s edge when Gilda wants them both to “fly” — but Kadyo is also a complex character prone to thievery and poor judgment.
Puring blames Gilda for the death of her husband, and for bringing the clan bad fortune. During the first two hours, outer and inner forces tear the family apart, including Kadyo’s prodding the group to work in nearby gold mines when the farming business collapses, and the rise of civil war in the local jungle. Kadyo spurns the rebels’ invitation to join them, and when Marcos’ troops press the family for information, Raynaldo ends up shooting some soldiers.
With Raynaldo now grown mute, Puring arranges for granddaughter Ana (Sigrid Bernardo) to work at a wealthy home. Like a character out of Norris’ “Greed,” Kadyo grows increasingly obsessed with risky efforts to dig for that elusive vein of gold. Gilda dies in the pic’s first half, and Raynaldo leaves home without the family knowing where he’s gone, and Kadyo ends up in prison for robbery.
Latter half of “Evolution” is mainly devoted to the family’s quest for Raynaldo, and Kadyo’s fate in the city. But any description of incidents neither conveys the experience of the pic’s elongated pace and hypnotic moods nor the surreal junctures of staged scenes blending into near-docu reality, as well as less-successful attempts to bring pop culture and political events into the mix.
Taking story description literally, “Evolution” sounds like a soap opera in the Irwin Shaw mold. But each significant story point is separated by as much as an hour’s worth of often wordless action, with characters at work, at play around a campfire, trudging up and down jungle paths or — in the later parts of the pic — stumbling through city streets and alleys. Diaz claims to have never seen Tarr’s “Satantango,” but there are plentiful echoes here of that masterpiece’s depictions of villagers in silent perambulations and suffering personal breakdowns.
Starkly modern devices marble the saga, as when Diaz cuts away from the family lazily listening to a radio soap to cutting to the actual studio where the show is being broadcast — a clear if uneven spoof of his countrymen’s taste for extreme drama; conversely, “Evolution” insists people face hardships in gradual, unexpected ways that no soap can capture.
Polemics abound, mainly through inserts of footage of crucial events during the Marcos era. Startling asides contain stunning images, but will mean far more to Filipino auds than foreigners. More generally effective is a sequence where Kadyo watches a TV interview with late Filipino director Lino Brocka (actually a vid interview by Diaz), whose call for an activist Filipino cinema attuned to the poor and marginalized is this film’s emphatic credo.
Since dramatics are drained away, the cast doesn’t so much act as assume a behavior in front of the lens. Because he goes through the most incidents and takes up the most screen time, Medina’s Kadyo leaves the strongest impression — especially his fateful scene in grungy city streets that takes more than 20 minutes to play out.
Viewers may reasonably ask why sequences and shots are held to such extraordinary length, but there’s plenty of precedent for Diaz’s method as editor and director, from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s famed extended scenes to Andy Warhol’s much longer Gotham underground epics.
Pic’s only chance to build international critical support, however, will be with a cleaner final print. Vid unspooled at Toronto lacked sound for minutes at a time, and mix itself was extremely rough.
Although lensing (credited jointly to Bahaghari, producer Paul Tanedo and Larry Manda) boasts an unusual texture for vid, many early scenes set at night and lit only by fire or torches are almost black. In a postscreening discussion, Diaz sounded like Wong Kar-wai after his Cannes preem of “2046,” hinting on one hand that he may shoot additional footage, while stating that this is “the final cut, for Toronto.”