When news surfaced that Lav Diaz’s latest film was a self-billed “rock opera” titled “Season of the Devil,” you’d have been forgiven for thinking the prolific Filipino maximalist had made a drastic departure into proggy 1970s Ken Russell territory. As it turns out, Diaz’s definitions of both “rock” and “opera” are as idiosyncratic as everything else about his super-sized filmmaking. Dwelling solemnly on the lives and communities destroyed under the Marcos Dictatorship, and performed entirely in incantatory, instrument-free song that won’t be giving Lin-Manuel Miranda any sleepless nights, this uniquely onerous experiment may ostensibly be the filmmaker’s first musical, but its mood, aesthetic and historical outlook all place it unmistakably in Diaz’s creative universe: call it “Lav Lav Land,” if you will.
A running time of just 234 minutes makes “Season of the Devil” a mere amuse-bouche within Diaz’s oeuvre of endurance tests — his last Berlin Film Festival entry, 2016’s “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery,” clocked in at double the length — though opinion will be divided as to whether its mournful, declamatory sung-through delivery amuses in any other respect. While last year’s strong, stony but more straightforwardly story-driven “The Woman Who Left” secured a measure of international distribution following its Golden Lion win in Venice, it’s hard to see any amount of festival honors sparking commercial interest in a project this oppressive and repetitive by design, posing some challenges even to the Diaz faithful; specialist streaming outlets are best placed to honor “Devil’s” to-the-rafters political ferocity and undeniable singularity of vision.
An introductory voiceover may establish the film’s essential milieu with a surfeit of specific names and dates, but as ever with Diaz’s work, much of its subtextual nuance hinges on the audience’s prior knowledge of Filipino history — and indeed the Philippines’ political present. In its firm, direct rhetorical stand against martial law (the collective victims of which receive a dedication in the closing credits), “Season of the Devil” allegorically damns the current leadership of president Rodrigo Duterte, under whose rule extrajudicial killings have soared in the country, as well as the Ferdinand Marcos regime of 1979, when the film takes place.
Both leaders are arguably embodied in the unnerving, quasi-mythical figure of Chairman Narciso (Noel Sto. Domingo), an incoherently shrieking, literally two-faced despot commanding paramilitary troops to violently terrorize innocent residents in the remote rural village of Ginto. (His dialogue goes pointedly unsubtitled: Read into that what critical symbolic significance you will.) Meanwhile, pure-hearted doctor Lorena (Shaina Magdayao) has settled in Ginto to open a clinic, leaving behind her husband Hugo (Piolo Pascual), a progressive liberal poet and activist who gradually comes apart at the seams in her absence.
For the bulk of the film, focus shifts between the village, where a sadistic militia gang led by a ruthless female soldier (Hazel Orencio) confronts and tortures one hapless local after another, and the home of the distraught Hugo, whose pain is both vocalized and assuaged by the enigmatic, lark-voiced Kwentista (Filipino pop diva Bituin Escalante) — a sort of one-woman Greek chorus. When Lorena ominously disappears, Hugo makes his own way to Ginto to investigate.
It’s not a convoluted narrative, though Diaz, ever mindful of a larger community behind his stories, crams and complicates matters with lives stricken and broken at the edges of the action — which is shot by Larry Manda in the director’s recently favored mode of alternately murky and milky monochrome, with copious, jarring use of wide-angle lenses further distorting the film’s heightened reality. Around the script’s basic framework, the songs (all composed by Diaz and performed a cappella by actors whose vocal gifts range from soaring to wrawling) build and amplify feeling through rhetorical heft and repetition.
Diaz’s songwriting style is bluntly declarative and deliberately anti-melodic, mostly working in one of two registers: impassioned lamentations by the oppressed and ironic, rancorous back-and-forth duets between the soldiers and their victims, the latter always culminating in a faux-naive “la la la” refrain that becomes the film’s cruelest leitmotif. Parts of the song score are more memorable than others — the bitterly discordant “Talampunay Blues,” sung over a scene of a woman’s sexual assault at the hands of the military, is, for better or worse, hard to shake — but as recited and reprised over the course of four hours, their effect is more numbing than cumulatively powerful.
There are some raw, stirring interludes here, many delivered by Escalante (a million miles musically from her experience as Effie White in the Filipino production of “Dreamgirls”), but the film’s sheer mass of similar material rather reduces their impact. The imposing, overwhelming scale of Diaz’s cinema may be its hallmark, but it’s hard not to wonder what finer rhythmic and tonal variations another editor (the auteur continues to self-employ in this regard) might have brought to the table this time. Yet Diaz remains emphatically his own artist, whether to exhilarating or punishing effect: “Don’t give in to the masses’ sensibilities!” warns one of his typically catchy lyrics, and you can’t say he doesn’t practice what he preaches.