The latest film from Filipino director Lav Diaz to make it to US streaming services is the almost four-hour long, politically charged, a cappella musical Season of the Devil — a film that is, per the director himself, “about motherfuckers like Donald Trump.” A cri de cœur for resistance and revolution (in at least art, if not beyond), the film is a pained, elegiac movement through the period of martial law that gripped the Philippines from 1972–1981 — albeit one that blends reality and fiction quite liberally. The fascist dictator of the film, for example, is not former president Ferdinand Marcos, but the symbolically Janus-faced Chairman Narciso (Noel Sto. Domingo), an apparent reference to the clownish charlatanism of the dictator in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Season of the Devil mainly follows the poet Hugo Haniway (Piolo Pascual), who seems to embody Diaz (the character has the director’s trademark long middle-parted hair) as much as any other storied artist or scholar, and his wife Lorena (Shaina Magayao). As the latter departs to help the impoverished residents of a remote barrio, much to the chagrin of a group of Narciso-sanctioned paramilitaries, Haniway falls into drunkenness and engages in a forlorn affair. Only when he receives news of Lorena’s disappearance at the hands of the fascist militia does he shake out of his protracted stupor. His journey to find her leads to encounters with those who oppose the militias that roam the land — all of whom meet with brutal and increasingly disturbing fates. And Haniway is no exception: he ends the film clutching a gun to his chest, promising Narciso’s stormtroopers to end his life if he just gets news of his wife’s whereabouts.
While Season of the Devil retraces many of the same themes that recur throughout Diaz’s oeuvre, the film nonetheless seems like a much more personal project for the director.
If this sounds like too arid a proposition for a four-hour long commitment — and it very well might be — Diaz’s acute understanding of form enlivens the project considerably. The film’s frames possess a distorted, surreal quality, likely due to the fact that they were shot on a wide 9:8 lens and later cropped to 4:3, unnaturally emphasizing each composition’s foreground. And Diaz’s use of black and white continues to impress: his highly deliberate mise-en-scène, with its subtle manipulations of shadow and light, continually infuse the film’s many long takes with pictorial interest. But surprisingly, perhaps, it’s as a musical that Season of the Devil truly impresses. While the protagonists largely perform melancholic, funereal pieces that suit their mourning for the state of the nation, the violent, oppressive military forces cry out chants whose insidious, propagandistic repetition both represents and enacts their stated aims of distorting the truth. Much like the colonizers of A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, Narciso and his acolytes deploy the nation’s myths and legends — such as tikbalangs and nature in general — against the uneducated, in order to weaken support for any revolutionary opposition. This sinister use of fascist rhythms reaches its horrifying zenith during Lorena’s rape at the hands of Narciso’s men. While undergoing torture, she takes up the words and cadences of her soon-to-be murderers — it’s a moment of terror that illustrates the means by which fascism worms its way into the minds of survivors and victims alike. At no point does the use of musical form mitigate the film’s distressing content. Rather, it compounds the film’s harrowing force, giving the violence a more singular and disturbing power, while also communicating the necessity of holding to and expressing other kinds of rhythms — even if that means seizing and changing those of his oppressors, as Haniway does in the film’s final moments.
While Season of the Devil retraces many of the same themes that recur throughout Diaz’s oeuvre, the film nonetheless seems like a much more personal project for the director. Indeed, Diaz himself has spoken openly as to how his adolescence under the years of martial law — not to mention the attacks on the many poets, intellectuals, and activists he knew personally — informed the film. Yet, despite the fact that Season of the Devil occupies a distinct period, Diaz has stressed its contemporary resonance, born of his lamentations for the nation following the election of its current neo-fascist president, Rodrigo Duterte. In this way, the personal and the conceptual align completely. By employing musical forms, he heightens both the necessity of having a voice and the dangers in using it, while symbols such as the Janus-faced dictator bridge past and future, indicating problems unbound by time. Just as the past seems to be throwing itself forward, Diaz throws himself into the past. In this way, the film is expressly ‘both/and’ in its temporal focus: It’s as historical as it is contemporary, with the past and present sharing the same highlighted problems, and with each implied wholly in the other. In this way, Diaz once again demonstrates his ability to apprehend historical movements and provocatively question what it would mean to act rightly within them. With this highly charged, out-of-left-field musical, the Filipino director cements his place among the giants of political cinema — Sergei Eisenstein, Santiago Alvarez, Pedro Costa, Straub/Huillet, Wang Bing, and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, to name but a few — those who were (and are) able, within their own contexts, to do the very same.
You can currently stream Lav Diaz’s’s Season of the Devil on Mubi.