Berlin International Film Festival — Day 7

68th Berlin International Film Festival — Day 7

Season of the Devil

12) Sea­son of the Dev­il, or Ang Pana­hon ng Hal­i­maw (Philip­pines, 2018)

The idea of a Philip­pine mix­ture of mu­si­cal and his­tor­i­cal dra­ma con­ceived by Lav Diaz – or as he de­scribes it, a “Philip­pine rock opera” – is in it­self 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. In fact, 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 that easy to jus­ti­fy. With Sea­son of the Dev­il, that is not dif­fer­ent, and so 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’ dic­ta­tor­ship and mar­tial law, the film is based on ac­tu­al ac­counts and takes place in 1979, when a para­mil­i­tary mili­tia is seen spread­ing ter­ror in a re­mote vil­lage in the Philip­pine jun­gle. The at­mos­phere is op­pres­sive, and they sing about witch­es, vam­pires, Tik­balangs and oth­er sub­ver­sives that 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 that “cer­tain­ty” is what is cre­at­ing mon­sters, de­cides to go to the vil­lage and find her.

Like usu­al, Diaz uses ex­tend­ed shots in low-key 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 that 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 who he could nev­er love.

And in the style of Greek tragedies, there is also a woman who serves as on­screen nar­ra­tor. Diaz is able to build an ef­fec­tive at­mos­phere of bleak­ness, es­pe­cial­ly with its raw, dis­tort­ed shots and a low hum­ming sound that can be faint­ly heard in the back­ground some­times. But the songs are un­even and many of them feel ab­solute­ly dis­pens­able (like in a scene at the hos­pi­tal). Be­sides, the film los­es some of its im­pact by show­ing Lorena’s in­sane com­pli­ance to­ward 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 so 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 Cap­tain Nar­ciso, a lu­natic cult leader who wears an­oth­er man’s face on the back of his head and casts his pres­ence over two women that 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.

13) Don’t Wor­ry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (USA, 2018)

When John Calla­han en­tered a car that was about to be dri­ven by some­one he just met at a par­ty and who was just as drunk as he was, he had no idea that he would fall asleep at the passenger’s seat and wake up the next morn­ing in a hos­pi­tal, a quad­ri­pleg­ic. Like a trag­ic blow from fate, his life was com­plete­ly changed be­cause of a stu­pid and ir­re­spon­si­ble de­ci­sion that would make him a wheel­chair user for the rest of his life. But fol­low­ing the ac­ci­dent, John dis­cov­ered that he could draw by clutch­ing a pen be­tween his two hands and 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 yet hu­mor­ous biopic based on his mem­oirs 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 its phys­i­cal­i­ty (and Jack Black and Rooney Mara, who looks a lot like Mia Far­row, of­fer sol­id sup­port­ing per­for­mances), Jon­ah Hill steals the scene as John’s rich spon­sor and meet­ings or­ga­niz­er who be­lieves that there is a high­er pow­er guid­ing us. The most mem­o­rable scenes in the film are those when Don­ny dances in a lit­tle blue short or opens 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 – and Hill ab­solute­ly de­serves an Os­car for his ter­rif­ic per­for­mance.

Em­ploy­ing fre­quent zooms and a cam­era that of­ten goes 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 his late old­er broth­er Riv­er, who too played a young man aban­doned by his moth­er in that film (Udo Kier had a role there as well).

But 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, touch­ing biopic that shouldn’t be missed.

Feb­ru­ary 24, 2018

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