Somewhere around the sixth hour of “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery,” two characters engage in a hoary discussion about the value of art as an instrument of political change. “The world needs art for its soul!” one advocates. “No, art is selfish!” the other counters. Round and round they go, as Lav Diaz’s lumbering spiritual-political epic ultimately proves them both right: This eight-hour-plus mourning cry for the lives and liberties lost to the 1896 Philippine Revolution may rep a sincere spillage of its creator’s soul, but it’s also a work of stony, audience-opposed self-indulgence. A major disappointment from a major filmmaker, Diaz’s latest super-sized tapestry of historical fact, folklore and cine-poetry is typically ambitious in its expressionism — but sees the helmer venturing into the kind of declamatory, didactic rhetoric that his recent stunners “Norte, the End of History” and “From What Is Before” so elegantly avoided.
A bold competition selection on the part of the Berlinale — the first of the three major Euro fests to gamble on Diaz in its uppermost showcase — “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery,” the very title of which will have distributors heading for the hills, will surely prove all but unreleasable in a theatrical context. It should, however, find sympathizers at the discerning end of the VOD market: 2014’s “From What Is Before,” a comparative joyride at just 338 minutes, was exclusively released online by cineaste outlet Mubi, and a similar rescue is conceivable here.
“It picks up after the first three hours” is no way to sell a film even to the most hardcore of arthouse patrons, though it is true in this case: This none-too-soothing “Lullaby” is more seductive in its ambient, windblown second half than its wheezing, conversation-heavy first, as Diaz finds more sensual, symbolic means to convey the collective desolation and yearning of a Filipino population suppressed under Spanish rule for over three centuries.
Even at the film’s most limpid points, however, its maker’s visual and aural vocabulary seems thinner than usual. Larry Manda’s black-and-white lensing, employing an Academy ratio that lends an apt sense of colonial antiquity to proceedings, is often ravishing, but the lingering shots of enigmatically fog-shrouded forests rather outnumber the layers of subtextual nuance to be gleaned from them. The pic’s most vocal stretches, meanwhile, conversely, are its most humidly static, as Diaz has characters relate crucial events without any correspondence from the camera; the resulting mass of informational and allegorical material is left both undigested and indigestible.
Amid a leisurely tangle of auxiliary scene-setting — much of it at the broad, unfunnily satirical expense of the Spanish imperialists, chiefly embodied here in the burlesque-villain form of an unnamed military captain-general — the opening hours gradually establish twin narrative tracks centered on contrasting revolutionary factions. Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz) is a bright, naive, poetry-spouting student who falls under the darker-hearted spell of Simoun (Piolo Pascual), a radical instigator of violence in the name of liberation. Representing the more callously destructive mentality at the urban, aristocratic end of the uprising, Simoun’s arc takes a redemptive turn after he himself sustains a near-fatal, ideologically motivated gunshot wound — necessitating an arduous trek through the wilderness in pursuit of physical and moral healing.
The second strand, devoted to the conflict’s female contingent, is at once more factually rooted — loosely preoccupied with real-life leaders Gregoria De Jesus (Hazel Orencio) and her unseen husband Andres Bonifacio — and enveloped in misty cod-mysticism. After Bonifacio is kidnapped by a rival rebel group, Gregoria (alternatively referred to as Oryang at different points in the saga, which hardly clarifies matters) leads a search party into the mountains. Among her followers are consumptive male ally Karyo (Joel Saracho), grief-stricken mother Aling Hule (Susan Africa) and Caesaria Belarmino (Alessandra de Rossi), who remorsefully harbors a dark secret: Her collusion with the Spanish enabled their bloody victory over her fellow villagers in 1897’s massacre of Silang. Their search is repeatedly obstructed by the meddling of three Tikbalangs — half-human, half-equine creatures of Filipino mythology whose whimsically sinister presence may add a note of local color to an austerely monochromatic affair, but does little to advance or enhance an already circuitous quest.
These briefly intersecting journeys, simple enough on paper, are often inscrutable in presentation, obscured by the dull clutter of Diaz’s dramaturgy. Salient dates and names are reeled off and repeated throughout, yet on-screen events occur in a far vaguer vacuum, one in which words — hectoring, instructive but largely unspecific ones — speak far louder than actions. “I only have the freedom of my country on my mind,” Isagani asserts. Hours later, an elder advises him, “The future of this pitiful land lies in your hands.” Diaz has previously written equally impassioned meditations on his country’s staggered progress to freedom without resorting to this kind of stiff, shallow sloganeering, for which even the film’s mannered, out-of-time formality hardly seems an adequate alibi.
Diaz’s preference for editing his own work is not a virtue in this instance. The testing length of some of his previous epics has worked to convey an appropriate vastness of time, space and geography, but the chronology of “Lullaby” feels both murky and choppy, carving out truths and revelations that hardly match the scale of their preceding inquiries. Even as the pic’s heart-of-darkness trudge into the country’s great beyond yields a kind of oxygenic grace — with Manda’s camera lingering ecstatically over the rich natural landscape that is the conflict’s most blameless victim of all — Diaz can’t leave well enough alone, supplying airless accompanying commentary about “a nation searching for its own soul.” At least “Lullaby’s” verbiage occasionally, if inadvertently, proves self-chastising: In a film short on laughs, chuckles rippled through the Berlin audience 20 minutes from the close, following one character’s solemn promise of relief: “In a little while, the pain shall end.”