Monday, October 26, 2009

Agonistes (Lav Diaz, work-in-progress)

The ancient Greeks invented and defined the term apropos of our everyday fate. Agony. Ours is one born out of a myriad of cataclysms – both natural and auto-inflicted. Lav Diaz’s Agonistes, an admitted work-in-progress but already fully formed, meditates on the Filipino’s most pressing worldly struggle, his struggle to break out of material poverty and the non-material consequences of poverty. Hints, however, point to a more eschatological theme – the centrality or the simultaneity of the spiritual struggle.

Directing from his own script, Diaz transposes the ancient term agonistes to latter-day Philippines. He singles out the classic strugglers of contemporary times, the working-class men and the peasants, to shoulder grinding poverty. In truth, it can be said that the agonist has been a favorite fixture of Diaz’s other films: Heremias is both agonized and anguished, so is Hamin in Death in the Land of Encantos, tortured and demented at once. Epic but individual in scope, mythological and biblical in character, Diaz’s stories are veritable stories of struggles, sagas of agony.

Agonistes opens with a grandiose sequence of robust buildings under construction in Manila. This is the magnificence that, on a sudden, contrasts with the slumped figure of one construction worker, a young man named Juan. As he narrates what he has witnessed to Manoling, an older, brotherly fellow worker, he has been traumatized by the sight of one of his co-workers being buried alive in wet concrete at the construction site. But the occupational dangers are not the end of it – the rainy season soon floods the metropolis and makes it impossible for them to reach their workplace.

These two become so desperate that, over a drinking session, they latch on to a kind of Pascalian wager. Manoling has revealed a secret of treasure supposed to be buried in his family’s land somewhere in Bikol. If they find it, they are set for life. If not, it’s just a matter of a few days’ work and a matter of looking a little silly, perhaps. They aren’t even thinking of that: Manoling is just “tired” of the daily grind.

Quitting their jobs, they emerge in Bikol one day, purchase digging equipment and get to work. They meet Manoling’s brother who farms the land but whose wife Loleng is terminally ill with a lung disease. As the trenches deepen, Juan and Manoling only manage to turn up rusty metals and an old military boot. Manoling’s brother seems content to live a farmer’s life and jokes in the background about a share of the spoils. At dusk, all of them often – including the bed-ridden Loleng -- gather to watch the magnificent – otherworldly? – sunset.

Agonistes is a miserabilist ode to materialism – or an oblique one to spiritual “reorienting.” Or perhaps, their unresolved dialectic. As the almost Syssiphian diggings go on, the crash and crunch of shovels against sand and gravel alternate with the sound of Loleng’s deathly and fatal coughing. As Juan and Manoling pursue their treasurely dreams, they seem oblivious to the specter of death, the possibility of afterlife. Like a colossal god, Mayon Volcano towers in the background to shame their pointless efforts. The Pascalian wager of the search for treasure can thus be read as an allegory on misplaced faith itself, the pursuit of false gods.

Even in this rough cut, Agonistes holds up as an excellent film. The layers of meaning are already robust. The simplistic notion, for instance, of the materialistic agonist (represented by Juan and Manoling) is elevated by the presence of other kinds of agonists: Loleng, the terminally ill agonist whose struggle is physical illness and presumably coming to terms with her faith; and Manoling’s brother, outwardly content, but something else deep down.

It’s a world of lingering shadows, and Diaz complements his classic themes with black and white cinematography. It serves him well again – appropriately eerie and reminiscent, among others, of the work of Bela Tarr. Diaz’s compositions are painterly -- he must have studied classic portraiture in preparation for this -- which reinforces the timelessness and universality of his themes, whether it is a reckoning of the ills of the contemporary Filipino or not. Diaz’s work will transcend the borders of time and space and nationality, our agony aunt for all time.


  1. I missed this one but Oggs saw it and he was raving about it after.

    Actually, as the story goes, told by one of the cast members later that day, Agonistes was the result of an actual drinking session - - - coffee ,this time - - -and a couple of days with nothing to do so they decided to go shoot. That's sort of Lav's method, he goes on almost random oculars,spots something in the milieu and a story comes up. Very organic. It sounds like the stuff of cinema myth but I joined his crew once for a couple days of shooting something and I sort of saw the process at work. I'm sure he had something like this simmering inside him already that just needed a little prodding and cooking but it's still impressive. And I agree, his eye is impeccable. I honetly think Lav has a clairvoyance with where to put the camera. Hehe.

  2. I agree northern portrait (I'm trying to recall everyone's face in the screening, just so I have an inkling of who you are). Great writing as usual.

    The stuff we saw there can be a complete film already; a sort of satire... a mixture of Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers, John Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre (only this time its not greed that fuels the characters but survival and Filipino laziness), and Bela Tarr.

    Terrific stuff, I can't wait to see how Diaz will end this film.

  3. Dodo: I was almost glad I missed Batang West Side -- it gave me a chance to see this rough draft of sorts, a good-enough trade-off. There will be another time to see the early masterpiece.

    Your testimony on Lav and his creative process boggles the mind. But I suspect his cinematic grasp is something well-honed. What appears serendipitous in his methods must be the tip of the iceberg of his process. Hard work -- until his approach is second instinct. If not, let's just call it what it is: Genius. And there must be some truth to this, because he is proving it with each successive film at a very prolific rate. And I agree, it takes a great amount of "clairvoyance" to shoot films that sustain the eyes for 8-12 hours in routine fashion.

    You should see Agonistes, even in this rough form.

    Oggs: Thanks! You know, a confession here, Dino Manrique introduced me to you, Dodo and Richard Bolisay outside the Cinemanila office, but I was too shy (and as always too inarticulate)to exchange thoughts with you three. You are practically celebrities. Demigods, hehe. I had to slink away just as soon.

    Great insights as usual about Agonistes. Cries and Whispers and Treasure of Sierra didn't even occur to me. Now that you point it out the laziness angle is becoming clearer to me, although I think it can be counterpointed too. (An ambiguous beauty, again.)

    The end -- the three of the men crouching in the rain -- is to the point I think. It is succinctly ambiguous. But I anticipate how it will be finetuned, how new material will be introduced.

    I look forward to your review.