"Cinema shows another world, a different world," says the man who, in 1896, first showed the Lumières' cinematograph in the Philippines. These lines are spoken 120 years later in Lav Diaz's majestic A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, all eight hours of which premiered in competition at the Berlinale in an audaciously prominent gesture of support from the festival for this Filipino director's sprawling, deeply political epic of storytelling. That different world of the Lumières, that which the cinema can show, is precisely what A Lullaby envisions: the previously untold, unseen history of the outskirts of the 1896 Philippine Revolution. In other words, this movie's other world is the world, but one without such images, sounds and movement—until now.
This saga shot in somber, high contrast black and white of fierce crispness and tremendous stature, alternates between two groups, one all men and the other mostly women, who leave their society behind to plunge into a jungle haunted by the turmoil between the Spanish colonizers and local "pocket revolutions." The men's group is a story loosely adapted Philippine national hero José Rizal's 1891 novel El filibusterismo, following the path of an injured man with a dark and conflicted influence on the revolution along with a wayward, uncommitted Filipino student. They journey from the city—where Rizal's execution at the hands of the Spanish colonialists opens the film—into the violent wilderness to search for recovery, ideological focus, and perhaps salvation. In the film's other strand, adapted from real historical figures, three women look for Andrés Bonifacio, one of the principle founders of the revolution against Spain: his wife, who was raped at the hands of a rival group of the insurgency, a traitor whose actions causes the slaughter of many Filipinos, and mother whose children were killed by the Spanish. They wander the hills and valleys of the jungle, searching for Bonifacio's body, and along the way encounter taunting and misleading mythological creatures—a wonderfully disturbing trio who prance and make horse noises—as well as a crypto-Christian cult which worships a kidnapped virgin and searches for another Filipino legend who may save the people, that of the god-like Bernardo Carpio.
A Lullaby charts these two journeys away from today's enshrined history of the era and into a psycho-landscape of anguish, distress, doubt, and desperate solidarity. Its method is to alternate between histrionic performances—dialogs which introduce the audience to the characters and their import in the related history, and several incredibly moving songs sung and poems recited—and pure physical ordeal, crouching, crawling, climbing, dragging and carrying oneself and each other through the terrain, a realm bridging nature and the fantastic, electrically alive with whipping gales and spilling fog. Thus we experience, often in real time, the errant questing, the lost hope, the savage physical yearning of these nascent mothers and fathers of revolution. And we likewise hear, in archly styled recitation, some of what's at stake for these people, stakes as grandiose as independence and nationhood but also as intimate and scarred as children wrested from a woman's arms, a rape's trauma, a gut-wrenching, soul-searching injury, and that nobly pathetic but common of afflictions, the hesitating cowardice of the overly intelligent and sensitive. Memories of the colonized city fades as we are stranded in the wilderness, watching a search for atonement and a reason to keep going into a better tomorrow.
"Silence is denying the truth," someone says in the film long after the introduction of the cinema to the islands. Lav Diaz's film is the precise opposite of such "silence": it is speaking, in cinema, hard truth in fact and psyche. His long takes each create a world, one full of space and equally so of time; his characters, invented and real, placed mid-ground to inhabit this continuum in body and spirit. "Nothing can match the depths of doubt," intones a final voice over. "Nothing can match the depths of horror. Nothing match the depths of sorrow." With long takes strung one after the other, these heroes and villains, strong and weak alike, traverse these worlds and unite them, building something bigger, grander, and filling the silence with their souls.