Toronto 2014: 'From What Is Before' review

★★★★☆
"The memory of a cataclysm" is how a voiceover at the end of Lav Diaz's latest monumental feat, the Locarno-storming From What Is Before (Mula sa kung ano ang noon, 2014), describes the preceding five-and-a-half hours. One character foresees armageddon, while another promises that "hell is coming." In what could well be the director's most overtly political film to date, that ominous atmosphere and the early seventies setting are quite explicitly entwined with the rise of Ferdinand Marcos and his declaration of martial law. In some ways an almost-prequel to the allegories of the exceptional Norte, The End of History (2013), this is a mesmerising glance back at the death throes of a simpler time.

A storm seems to be perpetually on the verge of blowing away this sleepy barrio; rain pours and homes are buffeted by gales, while strange events are beginning to concern local inhabitants. Houses have burned in the night, shrieks are heard in the forest and several of the local landlord's cattle have been slaughtered - yet life must go on. Even farmworker Sito (Perry Dizon), who's fired after the bovine deaths occurred on his watch, finds a way to manage with his young adopted son Hakob (Reynan Abcede). Meanwhile Itang (Hazel Orencio) spends every waking hour caring for her mentally ill sister Josephina (Karenina Haniel), who the village believes has special healing powers. It's in falling in with the various rhythms of quaint and superstitious daily life that the unwieldy runtime slips and the film slowly takes hold.

Photographed in the pristine black-and-white in which Diaz has made his name, the action flows naturally between the various characters - a priest possibly losing his flock, a depraved wine-maker that abuses the helpless Jospehina when nobody is around. The main character is arguably the setting, though. Scenes often begin with an expansive landscape into which an insignificant human character will eventually pick their way unsteadily, while the elements effect life as much as people do. This is a story of the Philippines, and a moving lament for a lost country. Monochrome scenes of father and son hunting in the forest and exchanging tales of tree spirits remind of Raya Martin's exquisite Independencia (2009), but it's not foreign interlopers that will destroy the traditional ways of life here.

When Marcos' forces pitch-up some three hours in, their presence begins to disband the settlement, but the title can be read as a stark reminder that all was not perfect previously. Dark secrets are littered throughout the community and deftly deployed by Diaz at the opportune moments, not least to contribute to the eventual implosion. It may never quite reach the fever-pitch descent into hell of Norte, but there's a quiet maelstrom impeccably stirred up by the time the credits roll. Gleeful persecution by the military hardly makes for an uplifting conclusion, but Diaz's From What Is Before is an enthralling, thought-provoking, elegant and tragic wonder.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 4-14 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson

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