Nonoy L. Lauzon
How does one soothe the sorrows of a people? What are the mysteries – man-made and divine – that propel a nation in hell? Do the ways of men actually and significantly differ from the ways of the omniscient God? Does history really repeat itself? Can a country be really cursed? Why do revolutions happen? Is revolution the true path to freedom? What is freedom or what is it to be free to begin with?
These are just few of the questions that the allegorical film has raised but is not meant to answer. It is all up to the viewers to ponder and resolve to find concrete answers for them. Such is the marvel of the cinema of Diaz that at film’s end, no one is allowed to go scot-free from having to think, reflect, interrogate and investigate on matters, concerns, issues and affairs that it has all laid bare.
As audiences get full immersion into the dilemmas of the characters in the film, the former gets to feel too the latter’s pain and loss and share their burden of confusion, madness, helplessness and hopelessness.
It is most uncanny that the film had its world premiere at this year’s Berlinale, right after the Ash Wednesday, that ushered the Lenten season for the entire Christian world. It opened in regular theaters in its home country on Black Saturday. Needless to say, the timing is most apropos as it bolsters the notion that a Lav Diaz film could not be anything else but a contemporary senakulo, the cultural form most identified with the Filipino commemoration of Lent and that has deep roots in the Filipino psyche and folk religiosity.
This puts to rest the dispute over the film’s length. Tradition indicates that the Filipinos may have the tenaciousness to sit through a film that may run on hours beyond the usual Western model of big-screen fare. They can be drawn to a viewing marathon in the same manner that they may take to senakulos of yore like fish to water.
Diaz’s masterpiece is also to be credited for an unparalleled boldness. Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis perfectly made sense as Diaz’s brash appropriation of Jose Rizal’s great writing. It is mainly a re-imagining of the novel “El Filibusterismo,” the sequel to the national hero’s only other work of fiction, “Noli Me Tangere.” In this re-imagining, the characters created by Rizal have ceased to be a creative proprietorship by the man alone. They have become Diaz’s as well, and thus are now owned by Diaz in the name of the rest of Filipinos of today, enacting their own celebration of their nation’s passion quite akin to what the Lord of their collective faith went through some two thousand years ago.
“El Fili” the novel has been rendered in Hele the film to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Philippine Revolution of 1896. The incidents that led to the failed uprising in “El Fili” have come to be as palpable as the betrayals that doomed the actual Philippine revolution as deduced from recorded history by situating the novel’s dramatis personae in the very historical setting that witnessed the execution of Rizal by the Spaniards and the murder of revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio by the honchos of Asia’s first republic that the great plebian helped sired.
The film thereby offers an important lesson on how the world must regard the Philippine Revolution of 1896. It is as momentous as the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 – from altering the course of geopolitical order in the world to demonstrating how revolutions always end up eating their own children.