Originally planned as a one minute short for Nikalexis.MOV, a program of short films dedicated to the memory of slain critics Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc that featured short works by directors like Raymond Red, Rico Maria Ilarde and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz's Elehiya sa Dumalaw mula sa Himagsikan (Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution) grew both in length and concept, turning into a film that is ponderous and perplexing but is still grounded on very familiar emotions of melancholy and despair. It is undoubtedly a film that sprung from spontaneity, with Diaz literally writing the film as he was shooting it with a cast of actors and friends who are willing and ready to take in complex roles in a very short period of time.
Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-paro (Butterflies have no Memories, 2009), Diaz's one-hour meditation on the moral and environmental changes in an abandoned mining town in the island of Marinduque, is evident in its struggle to communicate the spare and pained aesthetics that Diaz is most famous for within an hour. As a result, the film feels unduly hurried, rushing to arrive at its beautiful conclusion. On the other hand, Elehiya sa Dumalaw mula sa Himagsikan, despite clocking at only one hour and twenty minutes, is deliberately structured and less beholden to its narrative. The film is told in three parts, with each part pertaining to each of the three visits of the time-travelling visitor from when the country was fighting for independence from Spain.
The three parts are themselves divided into seemingly incongruent storylines. A prostitute (Sigrid Bernardo) patiently waits for a customer. A musician (Diaz) plays various melodies for nobody. Three petty criminals (Dante Perez, Evelyn Vargas, and Joel Ferrer) are preparing for a heist. A woman (Hazel Orencio) from the country's past suddenly appears in a busy marketplace, venturing then to fountains, rivers and other watery places. The storylines eventually converge, revealing characters whose lives are consumed by desperation, forcing them to venture into territories that compromise relationships and whatever remains of their fractured humanity.
Clearly, the prostitute and the petty criminals, with their botched attempt to drift out of their sorry lots, are only victims of a country that has sadly devolved from what it was originally intended to be by the revolutionaries who risked lives for freedom. Diaz does not create characters that are evil by nature. Like the trio of kidnappers of Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-paro, the ox-cart driver of Heremias (2006), or the displaced farmer and miner of Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), his characters are drawn to extreme actions naturally by an evil society, corrupted by systems that have remained unchanged or adopted through several years of abject complacency or lack of identity.
In one of the rare close-ups in Diaz's entire filmography, the visitor from the past directly looks at the audience, her face aching with heavy emotions of regret and sadness, the same regret and sadness that pervades the musician's solitary strumming. It is a hauntingly beautiful dream sequence, unsettling in the way it directly confronts with images bursting with the most wistful of emotions. Dreams are said to be products of unprocessed memories. The dream in Diaz's film seems to be the product of a nation's unprocessed memories, burdened with a decades' worth of tireless but unmerited struggles.
Elehiya sa Dumalaw mula sa Himagsikan is clearly Diaz's lament to what the country and its citizens have become. More importantly, it is also his ode to those who continue with the revolution, notwithstanding their songs being unheard, their images being unseen, and their impassioned calls being unfelt. It is everything Diaz stands for. It is everything Tioseco stood and wished for.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)