“These are cursed times,” a man notes toward the end of “From What Is Before,” and the full weight and meaning of those words come powerfully into focus across all five-and-a-half hours of Lav Diaz’s hauntingly beautiful new picture, which chronicles the gradual decline of a small coastal barrio in the Philippines in the final days before president Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in 1972. At once a vital work of historical reclamation and a sort of Southeast Asian companion piece to Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” — another stark, black-and-white drama about mysterious acts of evil befalling a fragile community — this endlessly patient and contemplative work will court a smaller audience than Diaz’s Cannes-premiered international breakthrough, “Norte, the End of History,” but should exert a strong pull on viewers willing to stick it out. Following Locarno (where the film won the Golden Leopard) and Toronto, fests will continue to feel the Lav.
The latest effort from a slow-cinema auteur known for his epic running times, “From What Is Before” is a longer sit than “Norte” (250 minutes) but a brisk jaunt compared with the likes of “Melancholia” (450 minutes), “Death in the Land of Encantos” (538 minutes) and “Evolution of a Filipino Family” (593 minutes). As ever, the effectiveness of Diaz’s approach depends on his finding a subject worthy of sustained rumination, and in this film, which he aptly describes as “a memory of a cataclysm,” it is the very act of remembering, of recalling the specific texture and atmosphere of his lost childhood, that seems to determine the duration of every shot and the placement of every cut. A poet-historian of longform cinema, Diaz seeks not merely to relay a series of events, but to draw us into a fully inhabited world.
Diaz films his landscapes in monochrome master shots that can stretch on uninterrupted for minutes, lingering on the sight of a bull roaming the jungle freely, or craggy rock formations that serve as a bulwark against a violently churning sea. The fragile interplay of nature and civilization is best expressed in the way Diaz frequently sets the stage for each scene, allowing us to absorb the contours and details of every location before ever so gradually introducing human characters, looking small and ant-like, into the frame. These are people who deeply understand the degree to which they rely on the land, and also the extent to which they are at its mercy.
In this remote rural village, traditional beliefs coexist and even intermingle with Christianity, the latter represented by the kind Father Guido (Joel Saracho), and the former by two sisters, Itang (Hazel Orencio) and Joselina (Karenina Haniel), who are believed to possess healing powers. Itang, the older of the two, is selflessly devoted to Joselina, whose gifts may explain the mental and physical disturbances that rack her body like that of a woman possessed. But it will take more than mere supernatural phenomena to account for the inexplicable menace that seems to taken up residence in this impoverished, weather-beaten village, and that slowly makes itself known over the film’s first two hours.
Cows are found hacked to death in a field, costing barrio elder Sito (Perry Dizon, also credited as production designer) and his young nephew, Hakob (Reynan Abcede), their jobs watching over the herd. Three huts are burned to the ground one night. A man’s body is discovered in the middle of a road, bearing a mysterious neck wound (is there a vampire at work?). In contrast with “The White Ribbon,” the ambiguity is ultimately dispelled, the mystery clearly resolved, and fortunately the solution is tied to something more substantial than a facile theory of innate human malevolence. The men and women of the barrio are fundamentally decent people, which does not, as Diaz understands, negate their capacity for startling acts of violence.
The filmmaker’s deliberate pace gives him ample time to explore this troubling conundrum, to weigh the morality of his characters’ thoughts and deeds without passing judgment. Father Guido has a long (if one-sided) conversation on the viability of telling a compassionate lie with Tony (Roeder Camanag), a handsome winemaker who’s sheltering a dark secret. Sito has his own painful truths to spill regarding the matter of Hakob’s parentage, and when they arrive, they merely confirm our sense of a world that has long since tipped into madness. It’s no surprise that the only contemptible figure here, a peddler and a meddler named Heding (a terrific Mailes Kanapi), is someone bent on uncovering everyone else’s private matters, spreading lies and rumors that represent the opposite of Diaz’s patient observational probing.
Eventually the military arm of Marcos’ regime intervenes, as soldiers enter the barrio, impose a curfew and promise to guard the locals from the “enemies” of the Philippines, provided they cooperate. It’s an offer of protection that feels more like a threat, and although the full nature of that threat takes its time revealing itself, the fiery devastation of the brutal final images leave no doubt. The army’s incursion in this remote rural outpost takes on the feel of a crime against nature, a violation of the unspoken moral and spiritual laws governing a community that, for all its imperfections, has always taken care of its own. While Diaz seeks to memorialize that community’s destruction, he also wants us to remember that it once existed, which is why he dwells so lovingly on scenes of quotidian life, exalting everyday struggles through living, breathing tableaux.
“Life here is hard, sir,” Sito tells a soldier tasked with quelling local unrest. But life here is also not without its moments of beauty, whether it’s the image of Itang calmly, ritualistically bathing her sister with practiced tenderness, or Sito gently cradling his sleeping child by firelight. Even in the darkest of hours, hope is never entirely banished; in a film where deceptively little seems to be happening at any given moment, it’s surely no accident that “From What Is Before” concludes not on a static backdrop, but on a bold gesture of human defiance.