Friday, April 5, 2013

Review: A Century of Birthing

A tortured artist's soul is on a collision course with a hokey religion in Century of Birthing, a 2011 drama by Filipino auteur Lav Diaz.

It's two stories, one about a cult run by a man who only lets virgins join his church. They sing a weird song that's repeated over and over again until it gets under your skin. If you're not careful, you'll be brainwashed too.

The other story is about a filmmaker named Homer, whose work on his latest film is never-ending. He wants to complete just one more scene to make it perfect.

The film-within-the-film joins the topics of art and religion. In it, a woman who says she was a nun makes a bold request, causing the shaven-headed hero covered with Christian tattoos much distress. There was also a humorously surreal aside about colonialism, with masked Spanish conquistadors parading through the streets of town, scaring passersby.

The filmmaker Homer also allowed for more commentary on the state of the arts. At one point, he's interviewed by a journalist who then lists the various ways in which the filmmaker can be called "pretentious", which is basically all ways. Just the very act of making the film, no matter how sincere, artful or entertaining, can be criticized as "pretentious". At another point, the filmmaker's friend and sometimes actress reads an essay from the Philippine Inquirer that muses on the difference between "artist" and "entertainer", the meaning of the National Artist title in the country, and, that woman who is wormed her way into the hearts of all Filipinos, Imelda Marcos.

Tragedy brings the two storylines together for a resolution that's ultimately full of joy and faith-fulfilling.

As always with Diaz films, it's an emotional ride, and it's hard to not get caught up in the lives of the characters during the 5.5-hour running time.

The first Diaz film I watched was Heremias: Book One, and there were several callbacks to that, with a photographer character having photos of the white oxen who is central to the story of Heremias. Another scene featured a similar caravan to Heremias, of Diaz firmly planted camera unblinkingly recording the passage of caravan of buffalo carts, coming from far away, down from the mountains, passing through a floodplain that is shin-deep in water for as far as the eye can see. It's a majestic shot.

Other times, it's the characters who stay still, lost in thought as the camera fixes on them. I was often given to wonder if the film file had seized up, but then the wind would blow a leaf in the background or the constant roar of motorcycles endemic to all Southeast Asian films would be present to tell me I wasn't going crazy.

Watching a Diaz film may be to some an act of insanity, but for me it's a sanity check, an affirmation that yes, I'm still here.

This was my first Diaz film since 2009, when Diaz himself and several of his films came to Bangkok for a series put on by the Film Virus crew. Also in town at that time was passionate Filipino film expert Alexis Tioseco and his girlfriend, Slovenian film programmer Nika Bohinc. A month after their visit, they would be murdered in a brutal crime.

Century of Birthing was dedicated to both Nika and Alexis. As a bonus, the Film Virus group screened Diaz' 2012 documentary on the still-unsolved crime, An Investigation on the Night that Won't Forget. The bulk of the one-hour film, screened in black and white as all Diaz films are, is an interview with Tioseco's newspaper editor and friend Erwin Romulo. The camera is again firmly planted and doesn't blink as Romulo sits in a chair and, with a leg nervously shaking, he spills his memory of that terrible night when he got the call and then turned up at the crime scene. He's never given up on the case, and recalled the various times the Philippines' Keystone Kops have been close to catching the main perpetrator. Romulo has gone as far as loaning his car to the cops so they could track down leads. Apparently, police in the Philippines are too poor to have their own vehicles. It's a story so full of injustice and absurd bumbling, it could very well be a film by Diaz or any of the other Filipino indie filmmakers Tioseco championed. But the way Diaz handles it is the most sensitive way of dealing with it, and I was for some reason reminded of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man in which he records himself looking at brutal footage but doesn't actually show the footage to his viewers – you just see his reaction. The two-part doc is capped by footage of a busy open-air night market in a town square and then a candlelit procession of a some kind that serves as a poetic and heartfelt tribute to two people who are sorely missed.

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