Film Review: Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (2011)

As an advocate of slow cinema, Lav Diaz’s films are not so much concerned with capturing Filipino reality as they are with expressing the emotive struggles that plague its society. His oblique presentation of ideas often blend sci-fi with history to create something reflective yet prescient. In Elegy to the Visitor From the Revolution, Diaz interweaves the stories of a prostitute, a group of criminals, and a musician, as observed by an eponymous visitor from the past.

At 80 minutes, it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the lengthy historical epics Diaz is known for making. After all, his 2004 epic, Evolution of a Filipino Family, boasts an astounding 10-and-a-half-hour run time. With what could have been a typical four- to six-hour addition to his filmography, Diaz demonstrates great restraint in crafting a feature that is smaller in scope, yet customarily audacious in its representation of national history, poverty and social strife.

Topics of crime and poverty are no strangers to Filipino filmmakers, namely Brillante Mendoza or Raymund Gutierrez. They capture these issues with a handheld camera. In their films, the frame is often moving with the characters, rather than just characters moving within the frame. This vérité-like approach lends a certain intensity to the kinaesthetic imagery.

In contrast, Diaz is notably distant from his subjects when he frames them in his compositions. It’s this aspect that sets him apart from his fellow contemporaries. The camera is a passive onlooker, often lingering on subjects from a distance before cutting to the next tableaux. Yet, each scene is no less intimate. The stillness of the image exemplifies every movement, like a photograph come to life.

In Elegy, this serves as a perfect parallel with the enigmatic Visitor, whose presence punctuates each of the three stories. Dressed in traditional attire, the Visitor is a quiet observer from a time long past. As the film’s title suggests, the Visitor is a relic of the Philippine Revolution, a movement which led to the country’s independence from Spain in 1897.

She watches as the repression she had sought to escape is being manifested in new forms in the modern day. She watches Teresa, a prostitute, fruitlessly pursuing clients at the dead of night. She watches a couple brutally forcing a man to confess where he hid the money they had stolen, but to no avail. Finally, she watches a faceless musician (played by Diaz), strumming his guitar in the confines of his abode, playing to an audience of one. While all three stories are varying, they share a common thread of loss and failure.

The Visitor’s weary eyes and downward gaze betray a growing despondence as she observes the unmerited outcome of her country’s independence. She’s often accompanied by the motif of water; her presence synonymous with the diegetic hum of pattering rain or river rapids. Like the water droplets or ebbing tides, the Visitor’s role in history is ephemeral. The Revolution she fought so valiantly for is a short lived victory, only to be washed over by a new wave of melancholy and despair in the modern age.

Unfortunately, as provocative as these ideas are, they can get overshadowed by overdrawn characters, and a runtime that overstays its welcome. Granted, the film is only over an hour long, but it’s arguably an hour too long. Unsurprisingly, Elegy is the extension of a one-minute short Diaz had previously intended for the Nikalexis.MOV omnibus, an anthology of short films dedicated to late film critics Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc. One can’t help but wonder if the film’s ideas would fare just as well, if not more effectively, as a short film.

However, where the film lacks in brevity, it gains in depth. Ultimately, Elegy speaks not of unjust people, but of the unjust society they live in. For those trapped in the cycle of poverty, most have nowhere to turn to except the streets or crime. Diaz frames these individuals not as perpetrators, but as victims.

Perhaps confining their stories to a 20-minute short would serve them an injustice. Perhaps Diaz quickly realised the breadth a feature film could provide that a short would otherwise lack. Perhaps the answer lies no further than the mysterious musician played by Diaz: unheard and unappreciated, his short guitar rifts falling on deaf ears. An echo of the artists’ place in contemporary Filipino society, and a mirror of Diaz’s own struggle as a filmmaker.

Written by Charlie Chua

You can watch the film in this link.
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