By Juaniyo Arcellana
“It is death to be a poet, to love a poet, to mock a poet.” — Sufi saying
As previously mentioned, one can watch Lavrente Diaz’s latest film Death in the Land of Encantos (sometimes also called Death in the Land of Poets) any which way, almost like a post-postmodern work that can be viewed at one’s own time and pace — a couple of hours or so, then off to work or chores for the next hours, then back for the last several scenes all the way to the credits. There’s no rush, really, so long as one gets a feel of the movie, maybe even catch it at its next screening at another venue to fill in the blanks of the missing parts.
This sort of random viewing as recommended by the director himself is most open to free interpretation, and recalls the landmark novel of the late author, Paris-based Argentine Julio Cortazar, whose Hopscotch suggests an alternative way of reading the work, that is, apart from the usual front to back, the reader can jump from chapter to chapter interspersed throughout the book, really like playing piko with the plot. And though we haven’t finished Hopscotch in its entirety in either style, we liked what we read.
This unconventional movie watching mode we were able to experiment on Feb. 6 when the National Commission for Culture and the Arts screened the nine-hour Death in the Land of Encantos at the NCCA in Intramuros as part of National Arts Month. We watched two-and-half hours before coming to work at nearby Port Area, then caught the last one and a half hours after helping put the paper to bed. A total of four hours viewing time, and we liked what we saw.
Arriving about 30 minutes late for the 1 p.m. start of screening, we began the film with the scene of a childhood friend welcoming the balikbayan poet Benjamin “Hamin” Agusan in typhoon- ravaged Bicol, the camera panning the two men against the desolate landscape, the friend reciting from memory a poem by Agusan titled “Alimuom.”
The poet Agusan has been gone for a long time, teaching in Russia and roving Europe for the past seven years, until he decides to come home shortly after typhoon Reming hits Bicol and buries entire barangays in mud and lahar flow coming from the slopes of Mayon volcano.
The painter Dante Perez, who is the film’s production designer and one of the supporting actors, had texted shortly after Reming lashed his beloved province: “Daming patay dito p’re. Pero ang ganda ng buwan. Full moon empty heart.” He added that the filmmaker Lavrente was in town to do a movie shooting vast acres of devastation, the backdrop for the story of the returning poet-hero who finds many of his loved ones gone.
Agusan’s friend is Teodoro, who stayed behind in Bicol, at the foot of the volcano. Against stormswept surroundings they reminisce about their childhood, how they would talk about art, the country, mammary glands. The subject drifts to a common friend, Catalina, a sculptor in another nearby town who is Hamin’s old lover, in fact she has a son by him.
Catalina uses as her material the cooled rocks from the volcano, sculpting the stone in her studio where she has some young men as assistants, who she uses as “parausan.” But she could hardly care about the village gossips, she’s an artist nurturing an ambivalent relationship with Mayon.
Hamin’s visit to the studio of Catalina is notable for the director’s use of available light, as the viewer can discern various gradations of light as the conversation progresses between the ex-lovers, when the sun gets partly covered by a cloud or when the scene is awash in sunlight.
Over glasses of basi, Catalina says how Hamin’s former partner Amalia, whom he had left for that teaching grant in Russia, had always looked after his studio waiting for the poet’s return, until she too got buried by the lahar flow along with the studio.
There are documentary-like sketches where the director plays interviewer and asks the villagers about the storm’s aftermath, how the relief goods were mere tokens of one-and-a-half kilos of rice, a couple of noodle packs and some sardines. “May ginagawa ba ang gobyerno? May gobyerno ba tayo?” the man behind the camera asks a villager, who also volunteers that the misfortune may have been caused by some neighbors’ refusal to give a glass of water to a beggar a few days before the storm.
There’s a beautifully framed sex scene between Hamin and Catalina, some seconds of humping and pumping for old time’s sake, but wait, the poet seems to have a problem, a kind of erectile dysfunction, and the coitus appears to be unceremoniously interrupted, an unforced error. The old lover says that it could be Hamin has too many things on his mind, his mother lost to dementia, his sister a suicide, his father dead from loneliness, and Amalia buried under lahar.
There’s much discourse too in the brownout scene, where the three friends — Hamin, Catalina, Teodoro — talk about patterns of insects and what humans can learn from such dialectics. For the most part what we see are three lighted candles, and the outlines of faces in the shadows barely discernible. The director shuns close-ups and soundtrack music, prefering the long-range shot and natural sounds of nature — whistling wind, cock crows, waves lashing the shore.
Diaz at times seems to be creating his own symbology, as with the boy kapre playing hide-and-seek with unseen playmates, possible the boy Hamin and his sister Theresa, running through the glade.
The last hour or so has the characters talking about the death of the poet, and how he had lost his mind before that. Hamin’s body was discovered atop the mound of lahar that buried his studio, his throat slashed, a suspected suicide.
The filmmaker interviews persons close to Hamin and other villagers to ask if they believed the poet had lost his mind and committed suicide. Catalina doesn’t believe he went mad, neither does Teodoro. Each recite a poem by Hamin, one of the last titled “In Memoriam,” the other a popular favorite, “Ang Bahay ng Mga Rosas.” Perez as Mang Claro is also interviewed.
Theories are brought up that maybe it wasn’t suicide, Hamin was a former activist whose works riled the establishment.
There are flashbacks, too, to a place called Zagreb, and the narrator comparing himself to a rat stalking a woman named Svita, the camera a bit wobbly and blurred on the backs of strangers, watched by the stalker among the DVD stacks. Towards the end there is a lingering shot on the nude body of Svita, a tall European woman with small breasts and a generous bush, asleep on an altar-like bed, the muse of a man condemned by his fate, the circumstances of tragedy, the not so merry-go-round.
The last scene with Soliman Cruz as the torturer giving the treatment to the bound Hamin in a safehouse, complete with the fascist’s singing of the national anthem while turning the poet round and round and tearing up his book, speaks volumes of the subtle political undertones of the film.
“God sees the truth, but waits,” is a quote from Leo Tolstoy that is repeated at least twice in the film. Just as the viewer has the choice to watch Death in the Land of Encantos in its entirety in one sitting, but waits.
Those who eventually do would be rewarded for their patience. Perez in a text message said, “nasobrahan yata ako sa art.” It’s the perfect antidote to a lot of the drivel being fed to us lately by the mainstream.
Philippine Star, February 25, 2008
This is another unofficial site for Lav Diaz, "...the great Filipino poet of cinema." (Cinema du reel, Paris).