Lav Diaz’s latest opens on a paramilitary site, freshly bunkered down and established as local headquarters in what was formerly the elementary school of the small town of Ginto, in the Philippines. After a brief narration establishes that we are in the year 1979 and that what we will see were real events (with a touch of magical realism), we watch female military leader Teniente sit at her desk in silence. She is joined by a frumpy man with a half-burnt face, Ahas. Both serve fanatically under the man behind the madness: Chairman Narciso, whose face is posted on flyers all over town. In what comes as a mild surprise, the first dialog is sung. Teniente and Ahas half-sing of the need for a new belief which they can gift the people of their country. They must find a way to provide some certainty in these uncertain times. Apart from their penchant for singing, they are nearly indistinguishable in appearance and attitude from militias in other Diaz efforts like From What Is Before (2014) and Melancholia (2008).
As a reversed version of this look behind military lines, we then observe a social gathering of younger people in a tavern. In the most technically ambitious shot of the film (or as its director calls it, “a little movement”), the camera slowly dollies in on a woman singing – Kwentista, who will set the stage via song many times to come – who then introduces a poetry reading by Hugo Haniway. In the same take we dolly out, following him as he walks forward. Costumed ghouls wander in his midst, as a physical manifestation of the “demons out in the open” mentioned in the text being read. A significant part of Hugo’s audience blindfolds themselves. Are they protesting? Or listening with absolute focus? Though the dolly movement of this sequence will not be repeated, the emotional movement of the reading will. Later at his typewriter, Hugo composes a letter to his wife Lorena. He is upset by her plan to soon depart for Ginto, where she intends to establish a community clinic. Copies of Fahrenheit 451 and The Last Picture Show clutter his desk. Two more protagonists give voice to the people’s resistance: a woman of the forest called both Aling Sinta and Kwago, who often sings to herself and the trees, and a wise man, Paham, who often sings to the people of Ginto to bring their attention to the wrongs being done to their community in the name of Martial Law: “This world offers no certainty[…] Men never learn/they still believe in ghosts/and lies become true.”
When the oft-referenced Chairman Narciso finally appears in the flesh (one of only two physical appearances, it should be noted), he screams unintelligibly without subtitles in his own kind of song. His militia listens intently. Diaz “mixed speeches by Putin, by Trump, by Duterte and then reversed them” to achieve Narciso’s unique speech patterns. He also skipped on subtitles because “Demagogues talk like that. It’s very macho [and] imposing. […] It’s like a spectacle. They get high with that. The rhythm goes up as well. It’s like a drug.” There is a second face on the back of Narciso’s head – hair to compliment his bald half, glasses to compliment his lack of intelligence, and silent to compliment his endless babbling. Depending on how you look at it, it is a horrible disfigurement from birth, or a deliberately sewn on trophy of a thwarted enemy’s skin. It is an image at once comically grotesque and unsettling. The metaphorical implications are relatively obvious, though nonetheless strong. The irony of Ahas, a man with a half-burnt face, serving under a (chair)man with an extra to spare is particularly delicious and prescient. Immediately after his number, Narciso exits and Teniente exclaims “Wow wow wow! What Chairman Narciso is saying is right! It’s so touching! I am speechless!” The frightening truth in the irony of her reaction comes across as comic. Of course no one can actually understand what was said, and in that room for interpretation, power spreads and its grip tightens. Once the effects of this blind following return in visual form, we are no longer laughing.
As separate events develop (slowly), the songs inch the narrative forward. Kwentista returns time and again to wax poetic in many of the film’s best sung performances to share with us what characters are not able to tell us for themselves. The songs are entirely a cappella. Though I was initially upset by the film’s promotional material billing it as a ‘rock opera,’ the stripping away of extraneous theatrical backing tracks avoids the flimsy insincerity of most musicals. One layer deeper sits the same false certainty which the militia constructs for the locals to keep resistance at bay. They are promised one thing and given another. I wanted to see a rock opera. I wanted the certainty of a film which would meet these terms according to my personal definition, and instead I was given sung dialogs without instrumental accompaniment. It’s a challenge no less draining than any other mammoth work from the director, but the addition of so much more music in this entry certainly does have its strengths: some of the less talented singers (especially among the military players) perform in a half-sung voice which suit the characters nicely while allowing for a frankness of statements which would feel painfully stilted as dialog yet seem perfectly suited to song (i.e. “I am not hiding, I am fighting for truth, seeking for justice”). Several songs re-appear throughout, as do certain refrains with new verses. They are effectively coping methods, for Diaz and the characters, both trying to understand the insanity of their own homeland. Diaz said he decided to do the songs a capella because he “wanted to be as raw and primal as possible.” While something like the live and noisy rock performances in Melancholia might’ve provided a stronger edge for some of the compositions, what we get here instead is undeniably raw. It is a rawness which has always been present in Diaz’s style. The camera is placed and the action (or lack thereof) happens in front of it. The sound recorded on location is the sound we hear in the cinema, scratches and mistakes occasionally included. For a filmography soaked in scenes set in the rainforest, raw feels right.
“The actors really struggled because they had to deal with memorizing songs, maintaining the melody, beat, rhythm, [and] the rhymes at the end of the lines,” which introduced new levels of “discipline that [they had] to deal with during the filming.” The actors had to “personify it, [they had] to delineate it, in a very honest way.” On the note of why so many songs are repeated, he cited political methods. “The deliberate repetitions [evoke] a fascist art. The very art of bombarding things in similar lines is a fascist way of doing things. It’s conditioning.”
When I asked if it felt at any point like filming a concert, Diaz’s reply was lukewarm: “Not really. It could be like an album of songs, […] you can embrace it that way if you’re into music. You can embrace it, not as a political film but as a concert. It can be that, another experience, just like an exhibit or an installation. When you experience my cinema, it’s yours. It’s not mine any more. [..] If it’s a concert, then it’s a concert. If it’s a whole real narrative for you, then embrace it as yours.” Since the political angle is so pronounced, I was more interested in his choice to use music at all. It seems the musical choice was also politically inspired, as Diaz said “news from the Philippines started coming, and I started writing songs about what’s happening in the country, to process [it]. There are some songs of mourning, some funeral marches for the country.” When asked by another critic at the roundtable what the notion of musical performance brought to his style, Diaz remarked “it’s not new to me because I’ve seen a lot of musicals and before I was a filmmaker I was a musician, so I’m familiar with the terrain, creating music and performing with some bands.”
The military use their song – as is often the case in real life instances of unwarranted patriotism – to justify immoral action (“Sometimes the law can be harsh/but we can’t do anything about it because it’s the law”), finally breaking out in a suitably outrageous “La, La, La.” In a sung argument with a wise old man – who is one of the few to stand up to them directly – we know he has lost when his turn to “La, La, La” is taken up by a third trooper who joins in the twisted merriment. They take pride in being right, never mind how many innocents may die. Diaz expressed the difficulty in portraying an argument through song: “That’s the struggle. There are scenes where the protagonist and antagonist […] will be interacting so that’s very hard. Are you going to create one song for this, and another song for this? It’s an aesthetic decision as well. You have to harmonize the way they’re singing the same tune. […] They come together, the ‘La La La’ things, and they start singing the same tune. Of course the perspective, [and] the lyrics are not the same. It’s a dialog. It’s a two-way thing.”
When the closing epitaph announces that Season of the Devil is dedicated to the victims of Martial Law, it is hard not to feel some solidarity, however vague and geographically removed, with those in whose name we suffer comfortably in the cinema. The end credits are set to the film’s only song to feature an acoustic instrument backing it: a guitar. After four hours of voices set to the sounds of nature, it’s striking. In some sense it closes a (long) statement – or question – which began with the opening scene of Diaz’s previous Berlinale competition title, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, in which the protagonist plays a classical guitar with elegance. The question initially asked is something along the lines of, how can there still be such injustice through time in a world so full of music? The suffering fuels the music, but the music heals the suffering.