Time is an elastic element in the cinema of Lav Diaz — not just in the sprawling, searching spread of his films’ historical purview, but the liberal, some might say liberated, scale of the films themselves. Weighing in at 228 minutes, a restrained runtime by the Filipino director’s standards, “The Woman Who Left” is more contained than much of his work: Its personal and political concerns converge powerfully in the story of one woman, reacquainting herself with her socially ravaged homeland after unjustly spending 30 years in the slammer. At the same time, the film’s deliberately rambling heft evokes the lingering, far-reaching sorrow of an entire nation. That doesn’t entirely quell the sense of strong material being over-extended, particularly in a murky middle stretch, but this occasionally transcendent opus finds Diaz’s formal powers — not least his own incisive monochrome lensing — at full strength.
A filmmaker who sees no harm in striving for quality and quantity, Diaz hasn’t given himself much of a vacation between this and his last, eight-hour feature “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery” — a vastly ambitious but disappointingly turgid metaphysical epic that premiered in Berlin a little over six months ago. Half that film’s length but a more emotionally resonant, intellectually satisfying experience all round, “The Woman Who Left” jumps a century forward from “Lullaby” in its historical focus, opening with a radio newsflash announcing Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Ostensibly unrelated to the narrative at hand, the news nonetheless chimes in with Diaz’s ongoing preoccupation with the colonial past’s ramifications in the present — a subtle undercurrent, this time, in a story with more immediate national corruption to process.
For Horacia (Charo Santos-Cancio, in a remarkable return to the screen after two decades in the production realm), the Philippines of the late 1990s is not the same country she knew 30 years before, when she was sentenced to life in a women’s correctional facility for a murder she did not commit. She’s unexpectedly released when fellow inmate and best friend Petra (Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino) suddenly confesses that she, coerced by Horacia’s ex-boyfriend Rodrigo, framed her for the crime all those years ago. It’s far from a joyous homecoming, however. Having been cut off from her family during her time inside, she returns to her hometown to find that her husband has passed on, her daughter (Marj Lorico) has moved away, and her son has been missing, presumed dead, in Manila for some time — another casualty, perhaps, of the terrorist-driven kidnapping epidemic surging in the Philippines at the time, word of which casts a veil of anxiety over proceedings throughout.
“The Woman Who Left” thus finds Lav in a particularly hopeless place — one in which even our kindly, teacherly protagonist alights on violent revenge as her planned course of redemption. Tracking down Rodrigo (Michael De Mesa), now a wealthy underworld boss, she plots his murder from a distance by night. By day, she grows into a charitable pillar of the community, providing succour and shelter to those (even) less fortunate than herself — most notably Hollanda (returning “Lullaby” ensemble member John Lloyd Cruz), a brutally abused transgender prostitute who seeks to repay her benefactor in a most drastic way. From this highly melodramatic setup, Diaz fashions a thoughtful, far from idealistic meditation on the complex nature of forgiveness and shifting moral accountability — with the government, shown demolishing makeshift communities while letting others fester in poverty and fear, its most consistent antagonist.
Diaz claims to have taken inspiration for his episodically arranged but densely plotted script from Leo Tolstoy’s 1872 short story “God Sees the Truth, But Waits,” which also centers on a prisoner belatedly cleared of wrongdoing — though that story’s emotional climax, the accused’s forgiveness of those actually guilty, is achieved in the opening stages here. Grace isn’t an endpoint in Horacia’s arc, which is instead build on renewable reserves of loss and despair — though the film’s trying middle hour, which dwells repetitively on her day-to-night double life and the destitute streetlife she inhabits, risks turning her into a decidedly opaque avenging angel. It’s Santos-Cancio’s soft-skinned but seething performance that must see viewers through the film’s most challenging passages. She plays Horacia’s quiet resilience without making her a kind of impenetrable exemplar: A scene in which she leads the defeated Hollanda through a shaky but hopeful rendition of “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” is an invaluable moment of pure sweetness amid the austerity.
Working once more in rich but unromantic black and white, Diaz’s cinematography is the film’s other most constant reward. Alternating between deep chiaroscuro strokes in the cobwebbed sites of its heroine’s past to more candid, semi-blurred shooting as she gradually loses her grip on proceedings, no frame here seems carelessly assembled or bereft of perspective. Serving as his own cameraman appears to concentrate the director’s worldview; serving as his own editor doesn’t have quite the same disciplining effect, but the sheer unpredictable range of runtimes in his oeuvre at least ensures that no two Lav Diaz films move to quite the same rhythm.