The lines of faith and spirituality that have been traced throughout Venice 2011—Karmakur’s The Flock of the Lord, Sokurov’s Faust, Olmi’s The Cardboard Village, Ferrara’s 4:44, at the very least—comes to a resounding climax with the end of the festival screening of Lav Diaz’ 6-hour epic, Century of Birthing.
The digital opus is split across three parts: in one, a Diaz-like filmmaker questions himself and his attitude towards cinema over his inability to finish a film; the second is the film the director is working on, seen in standard definition video clips played from his laptop’s Final Cut Pro (the rest of Century is in gorgeous high-def black and white); and the third is the story of a Christian cult stumbled upon by a wandering photographer, whose presence changes the fate of the group.
Over the runtime Diaz devotes as much screen time to drama—the filmmaker’s interactions with friends and his actress, the photographer questioning cult members, and, above all, the drama inside the director’s film, about a nun who leaves her order in order to explore the real world and the ex-convict who helps her—as he does to long take, meditative sequences of actors simply as beings in locations singing, reciting, or spending time alone, silently. The three strands weave between locating one’s life spirit in vocation and belief in something greater than one’s self—be it faith, art or just life—and the existential and ethical complexities that both invigorate the spirit as well as put it under the most profound scrutiny.
Diaz’s simple digital set-ups and long-take format, which film narratives that first oppose one another only to slowly, over the long arc of the film, fall into parallel tracks on the cinema canvas, speak with a humility, openness and freshly direct interest in both the filmed-world and the melodrama of his characters—qualities one might not expect from the supposedly high-art aesthetic and runtime of such a film as Century of Birthing. It is never less than generous, always giving its audience something to look at or listen to, an emotional core to find, a question to pursue, a rhythm to inhabit.
The film’s multi-part structure and lengthy scope encompasses and brings into direct conflict all that has been brought up by the Karmakur (groups of faith), the Ferrara and Sokurov (depressive self-questioning), and the Olmi (displacing religious actions and expression to non-religious stories) at Venice this year. Beginning at 7pm the night before the festival ends may have been a logistically cruel and unfair slot to ghettoize this beautiful film, but as a truly conclusive work for a principal theme of this year’s Venice and a high point to end the festival on, there couldn’t possibly be a better film.