Lav Diaz’s latest black-and-white digital marathon, “Death in the Land of Encantos” (clocking in at nine hours), unfolds in the devastated landscape left in the wake of Super Typhoon Durian, the worst storm to hit the Philippines in living memory. Placing a threesome of fictional characters amid the rubble, Diaz measures the aftermath of this natural disaster within the larger trauma of the islands’ history. Plunging the viewer into an alternate time zone where distinctions between documentary and fiction, stasis and action slowly dissolve, pic confirms helmer’s status as a brilliant but consummately non-commercial artist.
Unlike Diaz’s other works, which were carefully constructed over time (“Evolution of a Filipino Family” was nine years in the making — and 10 hours in the viewing), “Death” sprang fully grown from the ravages of the typhoon in Bicol, where Diaz had lensed several previous films. Thus, the documentary elements could not be described as “interpolated,” but rather form the very clay from which the drama (if such slight strands of narrative can be so termed) is molded.
Pic, with its themes of art and madness, is headlined with a quote from Rilke: “Beauty is the beginning of terror.” Indeed, the region’s Mayon Volcano — which, under the onslaught of the storm, poured out mountains of rocks and debris, killed hundreds and buried whole towns — remains one of the most majestic, perfectly cone-shaped structures in nature.
Pic traces fictional famed poet Benjamin Agustan (Roeder Camanag), newly returned to the Philippines from a lengthy stint in Russia. Two of his lifelong friends, a painter/sculptress (Anglei Bayani) and a fellow-poet turned farmer/paterfamilias (Perry Dizon) welcome Agustan home, and the trio starts to hang out together. The three, like everyone in the obliterated village of Padang, lost several close relatives to the natural calamity.
Specters from the past haunt the poet, including images of a beautiful naked woman who turns out to be the girlfriend he left behind who is now interred in his old studio lying somewhere beneath his feet.
Other visions haunting the poet are less explicable, like the nondescript street where the viewer finds himself stranded for stretches as Agustan stalks the Russian woman who left him after their child died.
More disturbing still are scenes of his mother’s psychotic breakdown and his father’s desperate attempts to drive out the evil spirits with loops of twisted wire hung from trees. Madness stalks Agustan, as death and desolation lie over the land, the nude topmost branches of trees sticking up out of the ground where lush foliage once flourished.
Diaz’s stark black-and-white digital compositions frame a landscape so bleak and boulder-strewn, so empty of habitation that it is hard to believe the land was not barren from time primordial. Painful flashbacks to the region’s past resurrect a lost Eden. The only thing more shocking than the extent of the damage is the ages-deep acceptance in the eyes of the survivors.