Seventh-day coverage of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival with reviews of Lav Diaz’s Season of the Devil and Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Season of the Devil (Ang Panahon ng Halimaw) 

68th Berlin International Film Festival

The idea of a Philip­pine mix­ture of mu­si­cal and his­tor­i­cal dra­ma con­ceived by Lav Diaz — or, as the film­mak­er de­scribes it, a “Philip­pine rock opera” — is quite cu­ri­ous. Shot in a gloomy black and white with an as­pect ra­tio of 1.66:1 and an im­pos­ing length of al­most four hours (234 min­utes, to be more pre­cise), this can only sound like some­thing rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from a Broad­way-like ex­pe­ri­ence. In­deed, Diaz is known for his elon­gat­ed works, hav­ing made films such as Norte, the End of His­to­ry (2013) and The Woman Who Left (2016), whose bloat­ed struc­tures are not al­ways easy to jus­ti­fy. With Sea­son of the Dev­il, that is not dif­fer­ent, and those ac­quaint­ed with his style will have a pret­ty good idea what to ex­pect here.

Ded­i­cat­ed to the vic­tims of the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted dur­ing Fer­di­nand Marcos’s dic­ta­tor­ship and mar­tial law, the film is based on ac­tu­al ac­counts and takes place in 1979, when a para­mil­i­tary mili­tia is seen spread­ing ter­ror at a re­mote vil­lage in the Philip­pine jun­gle. The at­mos­phere is op­pres­sive, and they sing about witch­es, vam­pires, Tik­balangs and oth­er sub­ver­sives they want to erad­i­cate from so­ci­ety so that “cer­tain­ty” (an­oth­er word for im­posed com­mon ide­al) can pre­vail. In the midst of all this, doc­tor Lore­na (Shaina Mag­dayao) ar­rives to open a clin­ic for the poor but dis­ap­pears not so long af­ter. Her poet hus­band Hugo (Pi­o­lo Pas­cual), who be­lieves “cer­tain­ty” is what’s cre­at­ing mon­sters, de­cides to go to the vil­lage and find her.

As usu­al, Diaz uses ex­tend­ed shots with low-key light­ing for each scene or mu­si­cal num­ber, dis­tort­ing them with wide-an­gle lens­es and keep­ing them near­ly sta­t­ic, usu­al­ly only pan­ning or tilt­ing here and there. The 33 songs that play in the film (all writ­ten by Diaz) are sung a cap­pel­la, with­out any ac­com­pa­ni­ment. Among the char­ac­ters who sing their mis­eries, we meet an in­dig­nant in­tel­lec­tu­al and a dis­con­so­late woman whose hus­band and child have been bru­tal­ly mur­dered. “The for­est isn’t a par­adise,” she sings, now an out­cast who has only her pain and suf­fer­ing as com­pa­ny. Mean­while, af­ter Lorena’s de­par­ture, Hugo has be­come an un­hap­py drunk­ard stuck in a failed re­la­tion­ship with a girl­friend he could nev­er love.

And in the best style of Greek tragedies, there is also a woman who serves as an on­screen nar­ra­tor. Diaz is able to build an ef­fec­tive at­mos­phere of bleak­ness, es­pe­cial­ly with his raw, dis­tort­ed shots and a faint hum­ming sound that some­times can be heard in the back­ground. But the songs are un­even, and many of them feel com­plete­ly un­nec­es­sary (like in a scene at the hos­pi­tal). Be­sides, the film los­es some of its im­pact by show­ing Lorena’s in­sane com­pli­ance to­wards her rapists in a very ar­ti­fi­cial (and even of­fen­sive) way, as well as a fight scene close to the end that screams the­atri­cal — not to men­tion the fact that Hugo looks much more like a mod­el, with his per­fect hair and body, than a wrecked poet who has lost everything.

At least Diaz man­ages to cre­ate strik­ing im­ages like when we meet Chair­man Nar­ciso (Noel Sto. Domin­go), a lu­natic cult leader who wears an­oth­er man’s face on the back of his head and casts his pres­ence over two women who dis­ap­pear from the frame be­hind him. What­ev­er he screams, it is not sub­ti­tled. We don’t need to know; men like him scream the same hate. It is pow­er­ful mo­ments such as these that el­e­vate Sea­son of the Dev­il above Diaz’s oc­ca­sion­al self-indulgence.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot 

When John Calla­han got into a car that was about to be dri­ven by some­one he just met at a par­ty and who was drunk as a skunk like he was, he had no idea he would fall asleep in the pas­sen­ger seat and only wake up the next morn­ing at a hos­pi­tal, a quad­ri­pleg­ic. With a sud­den, trag­ic blow, his life was turned up­side down thanks to a stu­pid and ir­re­spon­si­ble de­ci­sion that would make him a wheel­chair user for the rest of his life. Fol­low­ing the ac­ci­dent, how­ev­er, John dis­cov­ered he could draw by clutch­ing a pen be­tween his two hands and soon be­came a car­toon­ist whose dark hu­mor even led to protests against the news­pa­per that pub­lished his cartoons.

The sto­ry of Callahan’s life is de­pict­ed in this Don’t Wor­ry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a ten­der and hu­mor­ous biopic based on his mem­oir that ex­plores how someone’s lim­i­ta­tions can lead to the dis­cov­ery of art and new ways of see­ing life. Played by Joaquin Phoenix, John is por­trayed as a guy who ob­serves more than speaks when par­tic­i­pat­ing in Donny’s (Jon­ah Hill) un­con­ven­tion­al AA meet­ings. Ini­tial­ly sor­ry for him­self, in de­nial and al­ways com­ing up with ex­cus­es for be­ing an al­co­holic (though the film talks a lot about his moth­er yet nev­er men­tions his sex­u­al abuse at 8), John soon no­tices that mak­ing fun of our­selves can be the best remedy.

While Phoenix’s com­po­si­tion is quite per­cep­tive, es­pe­cial­ly with his phys­i­cal­i­ty (and Jack Black and Rooney Mara, who looks a lot like Mia Far­row here, of­fer sol­id sup­port­ing per­for­mances), Jon­ah Hill is ter­rif­ic and steals the scene as John’s rich spon­sor and meet­ings or­ga­niz­er Don­ny, who be­lieves there is a high­er pow­er guid­ing us. The most mem­o­rable scenes in the film are those that show Don­ny danc­ing in a lit­tle blue short or open­ing up about his life, sur­pris­ing us with his sen­si­bil­i­ty, sense of hu­mor and will­ing­ness to help oth­ers af­ter hav­ing suf­fered the harm­ful ef­fects of al­co­holism as well.

Em­ploy­ing fre­quent zooms and a cam­era that of­ten moves in and out of fo­cus, Gus Van Sant gives his film a cer­tain doc­u­men­tary look but also an­i­mates John’s car­toons to cre­ate some amus­ing mo­ments and uses a non-lin­ear struc­ture that ends up be­ing more dis­tract­ing than any­thing else. And it is fun to see Van Sant in a project with Joaquin Phoenix 27 years af­ter mak­ing the mag­nif­i­cent My Own Pri­vate Ida­ho with Phoenix’s late old­er broth­er Riv­er, who too played a young man aban­doned by his moth­er in that film (Udo Kier had a role in there as well).

De­spite that, Don’t Wor­ry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot some­how re­flects how Callahan’s work tried to walk a fine line be­tween fun­ny and of­fen­sive but wasn’t al­ways very ef­fi­cient. The film has some oc­ca­sion­al sex­ism that car­ries the po­lit­i­cal in­cor­rect­ness of his car­toons (like when a nurse sits on John’s face just be­cause he asked), which is a bit an­noy­ing con­sid­er­ing that Van Sant nev­er re­al­ly cares to dis­cuss what this kind of hu­mor re­veals about John (es­pe­cial­ly when mock­ing fem­i­nists). Even so, this is a sol­id and touch­ing biopic that shouldn’t be missed.


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