×

Film Review: ‘The Woman Who Left’

The latest supersized opus from Filipino maximalist Lav Diaz is a powerful and, by his standards, refreshingly contained moral study.

With:
Charo Santos-Concio, John Lloyd Cruz, Michael De Mesa, Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, Nonie Buencamino, Marj Lorico, Mayen Estanero, Romelyn Sale, Lao Rodriguez, Jean Judith Javier, Mae Paner, Kakai Bautista.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5843990/?ref_=nm_flmg_wr_1

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Woman Who Left'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 8, 2016. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Wavelengths.) Running time: 228 MIN. (Original title: "Ang Babaeng Humayo")

Production: (Philippines) A Sine Olivia Pilipinas, Cinema One Originals production. (International sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Produced by Lav Diaz, Ronald Arguelles.

Crew: Directed, written, edited by Lav Diaz. Camera (B&W), Diaz.

With: Charo Santos-Concio, John Lloyd Cruz, Michael De Mesa, Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, Nonie Buencamino, Marj Lorico, Mayen Estanero, Romelyn Sale, Lao Rodriguez, Jean Judith Javier, Mae Paner, Kakai Bautista.

More Film

  • Antlers Trailer

    Guillermo Del Toro's 'Antlers' Starring Keri Russell Drops Chilling First Trailer

    Events take a dark turn for a small town school teacher, played by “The Americans'” Keri Russell, in the first teaser trailer for horror movie “Antlers,” produced by Guillermo del Toro. The footage, unveiled Tuesday, centers on a young boy (Jeremy T. Thomas) reading from a frightening short story he’s written as Russell listens. The [...]

  • Why Hollywood Should Tone Down Violence

    Why It's Time for Hollywood to Reconsider the Amount of Violence on Screen (Column)

    To put it mildly, we live in scary, intolerant, violent times. Since a lone gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, and killed 20 children, six adults and himself, there have been at least 2,187 mass shootings across America, resulting in the deaths of some 2,461 people and wounding more than [...]

  • James Bond Spectre

    James Bond Movie Title Revealed

    The latest James Bond adventure finally has a title. The 25th entry in the action spy series will be named “No Time to Die.” In the upcoming movie, Bond (Daniel Craig) has left active service and is enjoying a tranquil life in Jamaica. His peace is short-lived when his old friend Felix Leiter from the CIA [...]

  • IFC Midnight Buys Brighton Sharbino Survival

    IFC Midnight Buys Survival Thriller 'Radioflash' (EXCLUSIVE)

    IFC Midnight has acquired U.S. rights to “Radioflash,” a survival thriller starring Dominic Monaghan and Brighton Sharbino, Variety has learned. The company will release the movie on Nov. 15. The film imagines a dystopian future, one in which an electric-magnetic pulse strikes America, knocking out all the power and pushing the country into the Dark [...]

  • Lee-Daniels-headshot

    Lee Daniels Entertainment Announces Diverse Creative Workshop

    Lee Daniels Entertainment and the online entertainment network Represent by OMV have launched a diversity-focused creative workshop to promote a diverse group of new writers. The workshop will be held from Sept. 25-28 in Los Angeles, with travel provided by American Airlines. Industry professionals will mentor aspiring creatives from underrepresented communities with workshops, meetings with [...]

  • Peter Fonda Obit Remembered

    Remembering Peter Fonda, Indie Revolutionary and Counterculture Icon (Column)

    Captain America has died. Not the spandex-clad Marvel superhero, but counterculture poster boy Peter Fonda, who shook up Hollywood and revolutionized the country’s sense of itself by co-writing, producing and starring in “Easy Rider” 50 years ago this summer — the same summer depicted in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Culture [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content