SR Film Review: Lav Diaz Recalls Horror, Calls to Arms with “Season of the Devil”
In a slight variation on Lav Diaz’s classic form, Season of the Devil is an account of hardship and despair deep in the jungles of the Philippines. Told as an acapella (anti)musical fable, it focuses on a few different people’s experiences as fascists implement martial law and tighten their noose around the neck of the people. The main antagonists are a pair of thugs turned paramilitary officers (Hazel Orencio and Joel Saracho) that go around the country violently terrorizing the folk that they come across in an effort solidify the power of their leader and enabler, a literally two-faced dictator, Chairman Narciso (Noel Santo Domingo). The lead protagonists include Hugo (Piolo Pascual), a revolutionary poet, beaten and battered throughout the film to the point where he no longer has the energy or patience to be himself; Hugo’s wife, Lorena (Shaina Magdayao), a doctor that sets her sights on the poorest, setting up her practice in the jungle for free, only to be demonized as a “communist”, beaten and kidnapped; a widow (Pinky Amador) who is labeled by her village as a witch, blamed for misfortunes, and ignored by them; an elder (Bart Guingona) in the widows village that can’t swallow the frustration from the goings on around him but still takes the initiative to regularly gather the villagers to discuss and coordinate through their troubled days.
There are no happy stories in this tale, and if I’m going to be frank, there is no dramatic conflict that suggests a solution to the real cause of all that misery: the fascist regime. Instead, it shows how much of these characters conflicts are most immediately in the ever complicated and uncontrollable details of their personal ruins. In other words, it displays that their struggles manifest lesser so as defense from or even offense against their oppressor, but more so as a psychological and physical coping, as a struggle to stay alive and remain sane. What’s worse is that, as they struggle to survive in such a cold and hostile environment, it shows no sign of getting better.
Despite this film being a particularly short installment to the Diaz filmography (clocking in at 3h 54 min, which even alienates a decent portion of the arthouse crowd but is for seasoned viewers of his works a walk in the park), it’s a bit difficult to sit through at times due to the focus/fixation on the musical part of the film which plays extremely tediously. The songs, written by Diaz during his fellowship at Harvard in 2016 after the release of The Women Who Left, were undoubtedly inspired by a deep and sensitive regard for both past political tragedies (including his own memories of Marcos’ martial law) and contemporary resurgence of unabashed right-wing politics, but their effect seems to speak to something else. They bash their way into your skull whenever they begin, go on for an extended time, and really leave you feeling like you’ve been subject to some experimental form of torture. The thing is, that’s exactly what they’re intended to be, but, it seems, potentially not how they intended to work.
During an appearance of his at the Harvard Film Archive, I asked the filmmaker if he felt that the music was somehow aside from the film and potentially taking away from it instead of helping it to which the director clarified that they are sung by fascists and so they must be annoying songs, that they “impose” on you, and are not pretty (although that still seems to ignore how equally frustrating in what seems to be an aesthetically destructive way the songs by non-fascists are as well). While its experiential irony can be consciously acknowledged even without explicit knowledge of the filmmaker’s intentions, its effect, for the most part, seems to contradict that of the rest of the film and thus seems to be aside from imaginable intention for it. This is notably an issue in one scene, for example, (coincidentally) a literal torture scene, one that’s otherwise extremely powerful, wherein the song becomes so annoying that it shatters the glass on the scene, emphasizing its particularly exaggerated and choreographed nature, in such a way that, at least for this film, clearly defines a practical limit to which the conceptual relation suggested between the form and the subject can be productively utilized to create a rich aesthetic experience as the film otherwise is. It seems to distance the viewer from the film rather than add to it, and after reading many peoples comments on the film, it seems that it’s a common reaction.
Even then, Diaz’s claim regarding the intention of the effect can still be said to technically stand, potentially more literally than technically for some, because, of course, any judgment of this is subjective. But again, on the other hand, it still seems fair to suggest the possibility that something relatively objective is going on, that his intentions might not have translated well into practical experience, that it’s a miscalculation or something of the sort (and a potentially fair argument can be made for it considering that Diaz claims to not judge his work much as its being created but instead sets up circumstances and lets them play out as they do).
Though it can still be shown that, as ever, Diaz remains reliable and sharp in his ability to put together heart-wrenching, philosophically rich scenarios. He does so with a masterful idiosyncratic simplicity that is, to say the least, much more of a technical achievement than may seem. For example, the cinematography (shot by DP Larry Manda), as with any of Diaz’s works, is truly a marvel, and not only justifies his shot lengths but also anchors his work, serving perfectly as a phenomenological canvas for his happenings and all of their intellectual and aesthetic weight.
– FM (3/5)