Season of the Devil (Lav Diaz, 2018) – Review

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I’ve been slowly introducing myself to the films of Law Diaz for a little while. A year or two ago, I tried watching The Woman Who Left, and at first, I just couldn’t get into it. This detached, slow style completely alienated me initially, and it wasn’t until earlier this year, when I watched the incredible Norte, The End Of History that I saw the power that Diaz could have. Norte was a film that affected me greatly, one that still does affect me greatly on a day to day basis. It’s one of the most striking films I have ever seen. Since then, I have been much more open to slow cinema, and Lav Diaz is the champion of it (for me, at the moment – I’m still coming upon many great directors, most recently the phenomenal Ming-liang Tsai, who I can’t get enough of right now). With surprising consistency, his films absolutely floor me. Both Norte and melancholia rank among my most treasured of all films, they’re unmatchable experiences. 

So, that being said, you can probably imagine my level of excitement when I woke up on Tuesday morning to find that one of his films I had no access to yet, Season of the Devil, had been put on MUBI. The first thing I did after waking up was start the film, and surely enough, Diaz managed to quickly lull me into his world once again… maybe more than ever before. For those who don’t know, the film focuses on a true story surrounding a great conflict between a group of communists and paramilitaries in the Philippines in the 1970s, with a main focus on poet and activist Hugo Haniway, who is on the trail of his missing wife, desperate to find the truth. The film, in typical Diaz fashion, is composed of long, black and white, often static shots, but what sets this one apart is the fact that most of the dialogue is sung. Yep, Diaz really thought to make musical about the hell of living under a troubling dictatorship, focused on a group of people living under a terrorising paramilitary group.

Quickly it becomes apparently that this film will be quite different to that that we have seen of Diaz up to this point. It is one of his shortest films, despite its close to four hour running time, and within fifteen minutes it becomes clear that Diaz is experimenting here with uncharted territory. I think what interested me most was this unique treatment to the musical genre, which is, of course, generally associated with the dreamy romances of the 1950s by film fans, and yet here it is used to tell this story of the desperation of Hugo Haniway in searching for his wife. When looking at it in a certain way, though, this is a story of undying love, love that leads Haniway to investigate his wife’s disappearance even to his own detriment. Diaz’s detached form may try to convince you otherwise, but this is a film os such heart – a film with such a strong humanitarian love running through its veins. As is the same in most of the work of Diaz, his primary concern is people, majorly his own Filipino people, and here it shows in its clearest colours. 

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Furthermore, the use of music/singing is doubled in interest when the contrast is made between what the fascist paramilitary troops sing about – their songs are almost exclusively quite joyful, despite the immorality at the heart of their actions, one scene early on specifically struck me, when the group sing happily sitting feet away from a crying group of people they have captured. It becomes telling of their morality and their ideas about this situation, highlighting the lack of care on their end towards humanity in general, fooled by their leader (and their own ignorance) into acting on his behalf – and what the communists sing about, their songs often reflecting on their mortality, their wishes to feel free from this fascist dominance they are surrounded by, using their singing as a way to uplift themselves and to motivate themselves to continue to fight for what they love, whether that is personified by the wife of Hugo Haniway or if it is shown through the desire to be free from what are, effectively, a group of captors, holding the spirits of these people and hanging them in the balance. This contrast, eventually turned into a sickening unity in one scene (my favourite in the film), when Haniway speaks/sings to the fascists about what he is willing to do to find his wife, describing how he would be happy to shoot himself in front of them just to know the truth about his wife, and each verse of the back and forth is finished off by a repetition of “La, la, la.”, that brings unity to the back and forth in such a strange way considering the argument at the centre of the conversation – this is the only time that there is any kind of similarity shown in the way that the two groups speak, and it comes at what is surely the most distressing part of the film, with Haniway desperately screaming his lines as the fascists circle him like sharks, watching his spirit break down in front of them as they sneer. 

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This scene in particular also brings to mind Shakespeare, who crops up in a few Diaz works as a clear source of inspiration. It was difficult not to think back to Diaz’s 2016 short film The Day Before The End, which focuses on a group of Filipino poets preparing for a huge storm to hit in the year 2050, with them reading off verses to the camera as they wander the rain-drenched streets preparing for what is sure to come. The way that the dialogue is spoken is so fitting to poetry, the repetition of certain lines becomes more and more striking each time they are repeated until it is overwhelming. Diaz has never been one for maximalist cinema, of course, but this is as close as he has ever dared to go, with the bellowing and repetition of many lines being so beautifully handled. 

What is also interesting here is Diaz bringing a genre as fantastical as the musical almost always is and attaching it to a film focused on what is described in the synopsis as “the darkest period of Philippine history”, merging fantasy and reality in a way that only film is capable. Just as musical fantasy often takes us away from the reality of film, here the idea of a musical alone distracts from the brutal reality of what happened to these people. This sounds like it detracts from the power of the film, but Diaz’s style never allows the musical form to truly spread its wings, and therefore it becomes even more gruelling as it feels restricted in the very same way that the characters do – we feel their desperation for change in the very same way that they feel the need for change in their ruling. It’s also worth mentioning that it never truly demonises the people, it certainly condemns their actions, but the opening clearly states that they are not entirely to blame for their actions. They have been fed numerous untruths by their dictator before, and during his reign, and this also links back to the idea of merging fantasy and reality – Marcos would have done the same thing, he would have taken reality and exaggerated it, or even outright changed it to gain power, and once he had that power under his belt he used it to manipulate the masses into doing what he wanted them to do. 

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The comparison to a “Demy film from hell” (quoted from Filipe Furtado) is certainly fitting. Diaz is taking steps in an entirely new direction here, and he hasn’t lost even a single shred of his power in doing so. This is, maybe, his most full throttle film. It is inexplicably angry, furious even, and in its experimentation with the most joyous of all film genres (as far as I’m concerned anyway, I have rarely seen a negative musical, it’s much less common than any other genre), he manages to merge it into doubling his power rather than detracting from it. This is the rawest kind of cinema there is, full of vitriol, and deservedly so. It’s staggering, essential work with a point to make – it is perhaps the single most important work of the 2010s, and the finest film of 2018 by quite a stretch. This is cinema that simply demands to be seen, it would be inexpressibly wasteful to let this kind of artistry pass by in vain. 

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