Filipino maestro Lav Diaz continues to push, prod and reinvent his personal yet universal cinema with “Century of Birthing.” A relatively short film for Diaz at two minutes shy of six hours, this saga follows the parallel stories of a procrastinating filmmaker artist (Perry Dizon) and a woman in a quasi-Christian cult (Angel Aquino), serving up ideas on matters of belief, creation and freedom that ultimately skew in a more hopeful direction than some of the helmer’s recent epics. Brave fests will sign up.
What sets “Century of Birthing” apart from Diaz’s other films about the Filipino national consciousness is how he incorporates his impending feature “Woman of Wind” into the narrative. In the context of this fiction, that film is the work of Homer (Dizon), shown editing the low-res video images on his computer.
Crucially, however, Homer isn’t meant to be seen as Diaz’s doppelganger, and easy comparisons with Fellini’s alter ego Guido in “8 1/2” would be simplistic and wrong-headed. There are two obvious differences: Homer appears to have never had, and never will have, a feature in the Venice and Toronto film festivals, where “Century of Birthing” launched its international fest circuit travels; and Homer can’t seem to finish what he starts, the polar opposite of the highly productive and prolific Diaz.
Homer is befriended and somewhat hounded by a female poet friend (Betty Uy-Regala), whose pretentiousness makes Homer’s stated belief in the power of cinema sound comparatively modest. As he sweats over “Woman of Wind,” “Birthing” also focuses on Sister Angela (Aquino), one of a tight circle of women around cult leader Father Tiburcio (Joel Torre). Diaz films their various religious rites, one of which provides the pic’s opening scene, without irony or intended ridicule; while Father Tiburcio turns out to be a vain madman and harsh autocrat, the pic observes the group with a striking neutrality that allows viewers to arrive at their own conclusions.
More pointedly, a nosey photographer (Roeder Camanag) has weaseled his way onto the cult’s property (this is far from Waco, Texas, and there’s nary a guard or gun in sight), and the film uses him to ask uncomfortable questions about the use of the camera to depict human beings, and how close the observer can rightfully get to the observed. More than in any previous Diaz film, the presence of the camera becomes a rather dark symbol of the uses and abuses of cinema, as does Homer’s editing suite.
Ever so gradually, these opposite worlds eventually intersect in a surprising and satisfying denouement set in the countryside under an enormous sky. Once Homer decides to get away from his rather shoddy studio, and encounters some characters outside of the city, the film shifts to large tableaux and time-bending sequences that turn the characters into mythic characters a la Diaz’s “Death in the Land of Encantos.”
The DCP projection in Toronto was marred by an especially raw, fairly unmixed soundtrack, with much intrusive outside and ambient sound muddying the audio; filmmakers noted this will be rectified in future screenings. Diaz’s black-and-white lensing is well composed, with his signature wide-angle long shots firmly intact; while nothing in Diaz’s movies ever moves terribly fast, the individual shots here are generally more briefly held than those in his previous work. Unconfirmed reports circulated in Toronto that Diaz is planning an eight-hour version, though the narrative seems quite complete and fully rounded at nearly six.