Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Lav Goes Meta

“Century of Birthing” is sort of like a twisted riff on “8 1/2,” were “8 1/2” written by Hong Sang-soo and filtered through the relentless somnambulistic cinematography of Bela Tarr or Tsai Ming-Liang. Of course, that mishmash of name-dropping doesn’t even come close to doing justice to the singular style of Lav Diaz, but it’s a start. For a little more on his long-take low-budget style, feel free to go back and read my other post on Diaz, “Lav Goes Long.” In this post, I’ll be talking less about the style and more about the meat of the film itself, and what it meant to me. I spoil a lot of the plot, so beware.

“Century of Birthing” begins strikingly, with a baptism ritual. Several figures, all wearing white, stand in a stagnant body of water as a long-haired priest of some sort preaches about a House, Love, God, and the Universe. It develops into a song, sung in passionate histronics by all of the other cultists, with the repetitive refrain “We are all going to the Father’s House.”

The song re-emerges at least a half-dozen times throughout the film, and it becomes almost a running joke. Pretty much every time it is sung, the whole song is sung, in increasingly emotional renditions. Which could be bad, if it wasn’t so damn catchy. The first scene goes on for about six minutes in one interrupted take, and by the end, the girl has officially been baptized as a virgin of the House.

We are soon introduced to the parallel (and primary) plotline, the story of Filipino filmmaker Homer. This is where the movie starts to get meta. I’m not an expert on Diaz, but based on everything I do know and have seen in interviews and his films, Homer is a lot like him. Homer is uncompromising in his vision, unwilling to cut his long, black and white films despite outside pressures, talks a lot about the concept of cinema as though it were God/truth, has a poster of slow-cinema favorite Tsai Ming-Liang’s film “What Time is it There?” in his room, has long hair, etc. Not only that, but Homer’s unfinished film, “Woman of the Wind” (or alternatively, “Corporeal Histories”), is actually a real unfinished film by Lav Diaz. So they have more than a little bit in common.

The one thing that they don’t seem to share is work ethic. Homer is experiencing director’s block, unable to finish cutting his film even though all the footage has been shot. On the other hand, Diaz is one of the most prolific directors around, and has more success on the festival circuits than Homer seems to. Still, it is easy to see how very similar the two are, and there’s no doubt that he is a surrogate for Diaz on at least a basic level. Because of that, “Century of Birthing” feels very personal. Diaz is baring his artistic soul, and expressing some of his frustrations with the artistic process in the story of Homer, and with fundamentalism in the cult story. The tightrope act of the film is balancing these two stories, and bringing there themes closer and closer together until they finally collide at the end.

As this is Diaz’s film on what seems to be his favorite subject, cinema, he manages to cover a lot of ideological territory into the film’s brisk six hours. Of course, the story about Homer deals with the daily life of a filmmaker, the frustration, the stagnation, the triumphs, the losses. Homer’s friendship with a poet and call center manager provides the thrust for many of the film’s conversations about art, life, and subjectivity.

There is also a great segment in the middle of the film where Homer is being interviewed, and tackles the overuse of the word “pretentious” head on. As someone who has had many long conversations about that word, it had me laughing and nodding in agreement. This scene, among others where Homer waxes philosophical about cinema and subjectivity exhibit a reflexive self-awareness that I didn’t see in “Evolution of a Filipino Family”, pushing this film further into postmodern territory, but it also comes with the occasional bit of humor.

The story about the cult is more straightforward, and closer to what I would have expected from a Lav Diaz film. In short, it follows Sister Angela, the new inductee into the cult of Father Tiburcio mentioned earlier. The women in the cult, all virgins dressed in plain white clothes, mostly seem to sit around doing chores around the House and the surrounding natural area. They are visited one day by a photographer, who takes pictures and videos of them while they work.

The story shifts focus to the photographer for a while, as he engages in a lengthy conversation on art and photography with the only male member of the cult besides Father Tiburcio. The photographer ends up having sinister intentions, and rapes Sister Angela so that she is no longer a virgin, and thus can no longer be in the cult. It is a twisted moral logic that raises deep questions on the nature of observation and intervention.

The cult’s leader, Father Tiburcio, does not get a whole lot of screen time, but he is one of the film’s most intriguing characters. One of the most powerful moments appears mundane on the surface, as the Father is shown getting ready for his day at the bathroom mirror. It’s a great shot, showing him washing his hands and face and carefully putting on his long smooth wig, humanizing him, and in doing so, stripping him of the prophetic, God-like stature he has convinced the rest of the cult that he possesses. Shortly after banishing Sister Angela for no longer being a virgin, he kills himself by cutting his throat. It’s a visceral scene, and again hammers home the idea of him as being all-too-mortal, the weight of his own self-imposed grandeur seemingly becoming too much to bear.

This connection between corporal violence and religious spirituality extends to the film’s other narrative layer, “Woman of the Wind”. Although we don’t see the whole thing, we are treated to probably a good hour or so of Lav’s unfinished film. It seems just as polished and nuanced as any of his other films, so it’s a shame it never got finished. At its core, it follows the archetypal story of the ascetic who wants to experience life more fully. In this case, it is a nun who wants to have sex with a former convict, a scary-looking guy with a giant tattoo of Jesus on his chest. Not only does she want to have sex with him, but she wants to push her body to its absolute limits, which leads to a terrifying scene of genital mutilation later on. Although “Woman of the Wind”, and “Century of Birthing” on a whole, really, is filled with disturbing sequences like this one, there are also moments of great beauty. One of which is a young girl standing in a river, expounding Malick-y philosophical voice-over as ox-carts leisurely stroll by her.

It is an appealing shot in a gorgeous film. It is Diaz’s first shot in HD, and the upgrade in technology allows him to imbue his shots with a new sense of depth, with objects and landscapes obscuring often obscuring the field of vision. There is also an incredible shot of Sister Angela climbing up a hill, the camera following close behind her in one uninterrupted take. The fact that we can hear the cameraman breathing heavily somehow enhances the sense of realism, even if it is also kind of hilarious. If the cinematography has any weak point, there might be just one too many shots of people slowly walking up roads or paths towards the camera, but it’s a small gripe.

As it was in “Evolution”, the sound in the film is done in a very… unique style. Diaz chooses to leave in pretty much all ambient noises, including trains and airplanes, which sometimes makes the dialogue nearly impossible to hear (thank God for subtitles). For anyone else, I might call it lazy, but I think that Lav uses this to create the highest sense of realism possible and strip away the artifice of filmmaking, and for me it really works.

The film on a whole really works for me, and I think I prefer it to “Evolution of a Filipino Family”, but only by a little bit. Lav Diaz is really one of the most impressive and intelligent directors I’ve ever encountered, and I can’t wait to dive further into his work. The ending of the film, to me, felt like it signified a rebirth of inspiration, a new beginning borne of tragedy, and a demonstration of the maddening power of art. Bravo, Lav.

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