Lav Diaz stands as a towering figure in contemporary world cinema, a Filipino auteur whose uncompromising vision and unique approach to filmmaking have earned him a devoted following among cinephiles and critics alike. As one of the foremost figures of what’s referred to as the “slow cinema movement,” Diaz’s films are extreme in every way imaginable: from their mammoth running times (running up to 10 hours) to their stark black-and-white aesthetic, their use of unusually long takes and still frames, meandering plotlines and open-ended narrative designs – all of which challenges viewers to abandon their long-held prejudices about film engagement and embrace a new anti-establishment cinema that disrupts the mainstream media culture of political antipathy.

Diaz’s political engagement isn’t limited to his narrative depictions of fascist politics and their aftermath but starts much prior by embracing a form of DIY filmmaking that stands in resistance to established film production norms as enforced by studio-driven movie industries. With a barebones crew, minimal budgets, and stripped-down production values, Diaz places himself firmly beyond the peripheries of conventional filmmaking dictated by capitalist logic. He thus liberates his cinematic praxis from the dictatorial clutches of the so-called “entertainment industry” that perpetuates the interests of fascist governments and their individualist neoliberal politics.

Lav’s films primarily deal with his nation’s fascist past (and present), most notably focusing on the brutal dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the Filipino president who subjected the nation to a 14-year-long period of Martial Law, a time remembered infamously for its countless human rights violations. With the renewed rise of fascist power in the Philippines in the 21st century, led by President Rodrigo Duterte, there have been rising instances of historical revisionism, which, on a nationwide scale, resembles a kind of collective cultural amnesia wherein Filipinos seem to be forgetful and confused about their own past, unable to historicize their present. Diaz has sought to counter this “memory loss” through his cinema by exposing some of the darkest chapters of Filipino history, particularly the Martial Law period when Marcos would use brute force to silence any opposition to his regime.

In this article, we shall explore the ten best films from Lav Diaz’s prolific career spanning three decades.

10. Norte, The End of History (2013)

Norte, The End of History (2013) Lav Diaz: 10 Best Movies

Lav’s first and only film since “Batang West Side” (2001) to be shot in color and on a considerably bigger production budget, “Norte.” proves to be a tour de force in examining much of the social and spiritual illnesses plaguing the 21st-century Philippines. Loosely inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment, the film is split apart by its two protagonists, Fabian (Sid Lucero) and Joaquin (Archie Alemania), who–despite never meeting each other–are inexorably bound to being on two sides of a single criminal act. Joaquin is a poor pedicab driver living with his wife, Eliza (Angeli Bayani), and their two children. Despite their poverty, the family maintains a sense of happiness and unity, with Joaquin occasionally borrowing money from a local moneylender, Magda (Mae Paner), to make ends meet.

Fabian, a former law student, is disillusioned with the corruption and moral decay he perceives in society and becomes obsessed with the idea of transcending conventional morality, much like Raskolnikov. The film’s plot is set in motion when he murders Magda and her young daughter in a fit of rage and existential despair, but the police arrest Joaquin in seeking a quick resolution to the case. Despite his innocence, Joaquin is convicted and sentenced to life in prison, while Fabian begins to unravel psychologically, tormented by guilt. “Norte” features a careful balancing act in foregrounding perspectives, both practical and philosophical, in the context of a political history marked by failed attempts at revolution and reform. As he trains his lenses on both the victims and the perpetrators, Diaz presents a contrasting study of class differences, privilege, greed, conscience, and the unpredictable hand of fate that rules every life.

9. Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (2011)

Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (2011) Lav Diaz: 10 Best Movies

A lone sex worker trying in vain to flag down speeding vehicles in search of a potential customer. A man at a street corner throws furtive glances as he’s stealthily joined by another man and a woman. Scenes from the marketplace where the local Filipinos have gathered to buy chicken and fish. These seemingly disconnected images are followed by the vision of a woman wordlessly stalking the streets―dressed in a garb that seems as out of time and place as herself―and suddenly, the opening sequences appear less random and more of a deliberate snapshot of contemporary Philippines, placed in stark contrast to the ancient colonial memory evoked by this strange apparition.

As we learn much later in the film, this phantasmal figure (Hazel Orencio) appears only in a dream. A dream harkening back to the era of the Filipino struggle for freedom against the Spanish, a dream of simpler and more optimistic times when the nation hadn’t yet fallen to the contemporary lows of sex work and rampant crime as depicted.

The woman observes her homeland, once brimming with the promise of a glorious future, now gradually falling to ruin even as the steady waves of time keep flowing on relentlessly all around her. She sings a song of sorrow and hope, urging the new-age Bonifacios and Rizals, the modern revolutionaries, to fight for and hold on to the vision of their forefathers. Deliberately structured out of chronological order―as if to remind us of the cruel cyclical nature of history―the film is one of Lav Diaz’s most passionate love letters to his fellow countrymen, an elegiac meditation on his motherland’s debilitating ills as seen by a specter from the past.

8. A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016)

A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016) Lav Diaz: 10 Best Movies

In many ways, “Lullaby” feels like the culmination of Lav Diaz’s whole body of work: a complex 8-hour-long confrontation with the very same historical events and crises that his previous films examine or allude to, only metaphorically and indirectly. It is also noticeably different in form and flavor than his usual fare, combining his usual commitment to realism with some theatricality, using professional actors and studio sets for certain parts along with a more dynamic camera, frequently flooding his frames with surreal lighting, and directly incorporating mythological elements into the narrative.

Set during the 1896-97 Philippine Revolution, the events follow a 300-year Spanish rule when the revolutionary leader Jose Rizal has been sentenced to death. This execution takes place offscreen and thereby sets the template for Diaz’s narrative approach: a history from the margins, following the revolution from the perspective of its victims coping with their losses, away from the battlefields and legendary heroes that take up space in every other account of the period. Two parallel threads run through the film, each tracking a different group making their way through a dense jungle in pursuit of their respective goals. On the one hand, there’s Gregoria de Jesus (Hazel Orencio), wife of Filipino leader Andres Bonifacio, searching for her husband, who was tragically killed by his fellow countrymen, accompanied by two other women and a local man.

The other strand of the storyline, inspired by Rizal’s novel El Filibusterismo, sees an injured man with a conflicted and dark past being accompanied by a young intellectual to his uncle’s residence. Along the way, they meet a religious cult (who bear a striking resemblance to Christians) worshipping the Filipino legend Bernardo Carpio, as well as the mythic chimerical being known to the Filipinos as the trickster Tikbalang. Drawing parallels between the birth of his nation with the birth of cinema, Diaz raises a call to arms for his fellow responsible filmmakers to be the new revolutionaries, to use the power of their art to illustrate the truth as well as the crippling power of lies.

7. Death in the Land of Encantos (2007)

Death in the Land of Encantos (2007)

A radical departure from the films Lav Diaz has made up to this point, “Encantos” is structured as a docufiction, suffused with verses of poetry and intellectual discourse, alternating between deeply subjective and cynically objective modes of filmic narrative. A self-exiled poet, Hamin (Roeder Camanag), returns to his hometown, Padang, in the wake of supertyphoon Reming, which caused mudflow from the volcanic Mount Mayon to flood the whole village, drowning buildings and people underneath. He escaped his country out of bitterness, being persecuted by his government for being a radical activist highlighting the sorry condition of his country through his work, only to return to a Padang that’s now turned into a cemetery, with scores of families being buried alive by the lahar.

Lav Diaz conducted real interviews with the survivors of the typhoon and only later incorporated them into the fictional tale of the poet. The result is a stunning meditation on the death of a community as seen through the gradual demise of an individual, continually battered by the hurricanes of a life filled with struggle amidst artistic aspirations. Hamin’s psychological imbalance and isolation are projected through canted camera angles, placing him alone amidst devastated, empty landscapes, the takes lasting excruciatingly long enough to intensify every little flicker of emotion. Diaz places his characters in a post-apocalyptic world, where the ordinary people still clutch on to superstitions and religious beliefs to tide them over the hard times, with nihilistic premonitions of another natural calamity wiping off the village for good.

6. From What Is Before (2014)

From What Is Before (2014)

Running across a vast 338 minutes, “From What is Before” witnesses the gradual collapse of a remote barrio at the hands of seen and unseen elements of evil, leading up to a Presidential declaration placing the entire nation under martial law. At the center of the film are winemaker Sito (Perry Dizon) and his neighbor Itang (Hazel Orencio), the latter seen caring for her mentally ill sister Joselina (Karenina Haniel). Joselina is rumored to possess healing powers, which attract both reverence and suspicion from the villagers. The peaceful routine of the village is disrupted by the arrival of military forces who bring news of the impending imposition of Martial Law, instilling fear and confusion among the villagers.

The mysterious disappearance of cows, unexplained deaths, and eerie occurrences contribute to an atmosphere of paranoia and foreboding as tensions rise and interpersonal conflicts within the village come to the forefront. Diaz sets these poor inhabitants of the sparsely-populated barrio against the mammoth forces of nature that surround them, mostly beginning his shots with the human figures at a great distance making their way towards us―looking like ants traversing a mountain―magnifying their insignificance against the grand scheme of things. The length of the shots allows us not only to bask in their rustic beauty but also to consider potential causes and implications of the events we are shown so that the psychological impact is all the greater when all the plot threads have fully unraveled.

Also Related to Lav Diaz – 10 Best Movies: The World of Slow Cinema: 10 Great Films That Foreground Stillness

5. Melancholia (2008)

Melancholia (2008)

“My face is scattered all over the Philippines”

What at first seems like a casual, witty remark at a bar soon echoes back with darker undercurrents as Diaz’s raw and grittily-filmed 7-hour-plus tale moves toward its conclusion. It isn’t just the face of one woman but of a people, a nation. The face of suffering, of longing, of sadness: melancholia, which, apart from tying in with the title and being the name given to a central plot device, is also the primary emotion with which Diaz’s film is awash. The first act begins with three characters ― a sex worker (Angeli Bayani), a pimp (Perry Dizon) and a nun (Malaya). They go about their day-to-day lives in the small town of Sagada and keep repeatedly bumping into each other, almost intentionally. Are these real people? With real lives and identities?

With a sudden revelation of an unexpected plot twist, Diaz dials up the complexity in this seemingly innocuous setup and plunges headfirst into decidedly darker territory, progressing from an observation of lives to an observation of trauma and its many cascading effects. By zooming in on these damaged people teetering on the edge of insanity, Diaz shows us the various coping mechanisms they adopt―some of them beyond our wildest imaginations―only to prolong their miserable existence. Is there truly no salvation? “Melancholia” captures a generation torn between the many extremes of life, their disillusionment taking the forms of revolutionary fervor, sex work, drug abuse, rock n’ roll, utter debauchery, and the finality of suicide. The frames here are almost entirely static―with only a handful of tracking shots―and there’s absolutely no background score whatsoever, enveloping the characters entirely in silence and ambient noise.

4. Century of Birthing (2011)

Century of Birthing (2011)

“Century of Birthing,” often referred to as Lav Diaz’s “,” is a film whose dark and disturbing psychological themes unfold in stark contrast to its supremely beautiful cinematography, a beguiling package that’s pleasant to taste yet difficult to digest, leaving an aftertaste more bitter than sweet. As struggling filmmaker Homer desperately seeks inspiration to find closure to his long-gestating project, titled Woman in the Wind, a parallel thread charts the rise and fall of a cult of religious fundamentalists. The presentation ever-so-subtly gives an impression that the latter storyline might just be taking place inside Homer’s head, a dark and violent manifestation of all his inner conflicts and dilemmas until a fateful revelation in the final act throws in a great deal of ambiguity to any comfortable conclusion.

While one of Diaz’s greatest personal concerns has been Filipino history and politics and their repercussions on the lowest strata of society, the other great thematic constant would be his preoccupation with the resulting psychological degradation in humans and the role of art considering the same. “Century of Birthing” allows for a great deal of discourse on immersion (a key concern in itself when considering Diaz’s films) and on the perceived nature of an artist’s existence, in contrast to the real challenges and unseen obstacles facing them.

Undoubtedly, Diaz channels a lot of his anguish and frustration through Homer, as can be viscerally felt through the latter’s lengthy monologue on “pretentiousness” and search for aesthetic fulfillment. On the other hand, there’s also an extended look at the various hypocrisies to be found within religious fundamentalism and its perpetual disregard for basic human rights – its idealistic nature appearing as a safe haven for believers, much the same way that Homer’s procrastination finds refuge within his visionary-yet-fruitless quest for artistic perfection.

3. Batang West Side (2001)

Batang West Side (2001) 

A Filipino teenager is shot dead on West Side Avenue, and Detective Juan Mijares (Joel Torre) is assigned the task of finding the killer. The boy, Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo), mostly hung out with his junkie friends, drinking and doing drugs even as his girlfriend tried her best to dissuade him. He left his home in the Philippines and came to America to persuade his mom (who left his father to marry a wealthy but paraplegic American man) to return home to reunite their broken family. Sometimes, he’d visit and stay with his grandfather, who exerted a huge positive influence on Hanzel, but he could never escape the darkness for too long.

Meanwhile, the cop investigating him seeks psychiatric help for his depression, precipitated by a troubled past life that he had hoped to leave behind in the Philippines but utterly failed to. Mijares is regularly haunted by dreams and memories of his mother and an unfortunate, inhumane act of violence that he had once been a part of. “Batang West Side” (West Side Avenue) acts as a sort of transitional phase between Diaz’s early commercial work with Regal Entertainment and his subsequent filmography.

Aside from being shot in color, the film doesn’t contain his signature super-long takes wherein each scene is executed within singular static frames. Most scenes and conversations are broken into more conventional shot-countershot sequences, sometimes cutting or moving the camera to reframe his subjects in a manner Diaz hasn’t done since. Also, some of Diaz’s central enduring themes are introduced in this film, such as the perils of compartmentalizing and repressing painful memories instead of confronting them, to be explored in greater depth in his subsequent work.

2. Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012)

Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012)

While Diaz’s whole body of work can be described as bleak, dark, and harrowing, “Florentina Hubaldo CTE” undoubtedly stands out from the rest with its uncompromising depiction of abuse-fuelled trauma as an allegory of the countless years of colonial exploitation suffered by the Filipino natives. While the name “Florentina Hubaldo” refers to the protagonist (Hazel Orencio), CTE stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: a brain condition resulting from repeated blows to the head, leading to dementia, changes in behavior, and severe depression. It is an affliction that Florentina has developed after suffering years of mental and physical abuse at the hands of her father (Dante Perez), the same way that the country has suffered in the clutches of colonial rule. Since she was a mere child, Florentina’s father would peddle her away to different strangers for money, making a living out of her sexuality.

Florentina’s suffering is an undeniable nod to the many horrors inflicted upon the Filipinos by the Spanish, the Americans, and then the Japanese, a vicious cycle of abuse in foreign hands. Diaz burrows deep into Florentina’s fractured psyche by immersing us wholly within her dreams (mostly filmed in utter silence to better contrast them), where ‘the Giants’ come to visit and play with her. She repeatedly chants her name and birthplace to fight the onset of memory loss, a desperate bid to assert her identity, even as her cruel father seems hell-bent on denying her any semblance of basic human rights. We are repeatedly shown a very particular shot of a city street in shallow focus, where Florentina slowly walks towards the camera, a treacherous image that shall be transformed into a deeply disturbing sight in the final moments of the film.

1. Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004)

Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004)

Lav Diaz’s first major work, and his longest film to date, opens by following a farming clan trudging along the fields under the glaring sun with their bullocks. It is soon made clear, however, that the “Filipino family” in the title refers also to the history of the larger nationwide family, made up of every citizen in the Philippines, as well as Diaz’s fraternity within the film industry and their role in reflecting the country’s realities.

Structured as if it’s recalled from memory, the film unravels in a nonlinear fashion, with a fragmented narrative charting the gradual descent of an impoverished family in a remote Filipino barrio, juxtaposed against real historical events depicting the various atrocities of President Marcos as he places the whole country under martial law. Simultaneously, this epic-sized project shows a surprising degree of self-awareness, as it repeatedly returns to the responsibilities of art in educating as well as representing all the layers of society.

On the one hand, we see radio plays of Lino Brocka’s “Insiang” in production, and on the other hand, the film features a fictional interview with Brocka where he advocates the need to portray the nation’s harshest realities without being curtailed by censorship woes, even if that meant finding newer forms and ideas to represent the unrepresented. This is precisely what Lav Diaz has achieved by fixing his signature long static shots upon scenes of prolonged anguish and mundanity that litter the lives of the severely underprivileged. To emphasize the sociopolitical context from which he derives the fates of his characters, Diaz mixes real archival footage alongside scripted sequences, reminding us how the powerful and the powerless in a country are always inextricably linked.

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