REVIEW: Lav Diaz's Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis holds a mirror up to Filipinos

by Mari-An Santos
Mar 25, 2016
Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis stars (L-R) Piolo Pascual, John Lloyd Cruz, Cherie Gil, Bernardo Bernardo, Angel Aquino, among others.

Hele sa Hiwagang Hagpis might be translated as A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery but it is a eye-opening experience that could rouse one from dormancy--if you will allow it.

This film put the Philippines in the spotlight by winning the Silver Alfred Bauer Award in the 2016 Berlinale (66th Berlin International Film Festival).

Director Lav Diaz’s 8-hour film (not his longest, mind you) is a journey, an examination of art, the Filipino soul, freedom, identity, along with a myriad of other topics.

The film is set during the period of the Philippine revolution, between the execution of the great Malayan Jose Rizal and the declaration of Philippine independence. Yet, it is not to be misconstrued as a historical document.

Lav Diaz is an artist, after all, and his musings and imaginings all converge in the purportedly mystical forest between Mount Buntis and Mount Tala—where the great revolutionary Andres Bonifacio and his brother Protacio were assassinated by fellow Katipuneros—and from which their bodies were never extricated.

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The first clue that the film is not to be faithful to history is the existence of historical figures like Rizal and Bonifacio alongside characters from the author’s works Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo like Crisostomo Ibarra/Simoun, Isagani, Basilio, and Padre Florentino.

Of course, one can argue that the characters in the seminal works represent real-life Filipinos who lived through the atrocious conditions during the Spanish occupation.

Piolo Pascual plays the world-weary filibuster/anarchist Simoun and John Lloyd Cruz plays the poet Isagani.

Their time on the screen together always lead to lengthy discussions about the futility of art and the question of whether, to borrow another Filipino hero’s famous words, the Filipino is still worth dying for.

Simoun has lost all hope in the goodness and potential of his fellowman, but Isagani, a poet on the brink, still sees people, Filipinos, as good and worth saving.

Sid Lucero as the grown-up Basilio, now a revolutionary, argues with Isagani about art and the importance of revolution. The backstory of most of the characters from the novels is consistent with Rizal’s books.

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Absent in the movie is the visionary Pilosopo Tasyo, who is belittled by society for being myopic and narrow-minded.

Lav Diaz must be a fan of Rizal, for him to have such a good grasp of the hero’s works. The dialogue exchanged between them are consistent with the characterization in the novels.

A parallel story follows a band of mostly-women that travels through the forest searching for the remains of the Bonifacio brothers: Gregoria de Jesus (Hazel Orencio), Caesaria Belarmino (Alessandra de Rossi), and Hule (Susan Africa) with Karyo (Joel Saracho). Their crusade, we know, will end in disappointment and lack of closure, but they go on, sometimes aimlessly, because there seems to be no other way to go or at least, they do not know where or how to proceed.

Hazel Orencio as Gregoria de Jesus

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But Gregoria de Jesus (or Oryang) is the strong though soiled young wife of the Supremo and Caesaria has a disturbing secret that betrayed and scarred the nation; Hule represents countless mothers who saw their husbands and sons killed by the Spanish soldiers; and Karyo is the Filipino festering with disease, hoping for a cure, clinging to myths and legends that will bring salvation.

The Filipino penchant for mythmaking and merrymaking come together in one very telling, though extended scene, where Ronnie Lazaro as cult leader Sebastian Caneo leads a feast and invites everyone to gather and eat. The length of the scene of mayhem and gluttony makes it at first amusing then uneasy to watch.

The Tikbalang, played in various forms by Cherie Gil, Bernardo Bernardo, and Angel Aquino, confuse and distract the group of pilgrims. They are strange bedfellows of the Spanish Captain-General and as such, no allies of the group.

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Bernardo Carpio, a persistent myth in Philippine history, is presented first as the soon and coming savior but in the end, is cut down to size: he is an absent, invisible figure on whom Filipinos have pinned their hopes all this time. So outside of us, apart from us, yet more powerful and will surely be our salvation.

The editing in many portions of the film can still be tightened. In some scenes, the actors have obviously finished their lines and wait anxiously for the director to yell “Cut!” from behind the scenes. There is an inconsistency in dialogues involving the date of the revolution in Silang and the name of the boatman.

All of the main characters perform so well that we are engaged in their every movement and every line.

Piolo Pascual is desperate in different ways as he plays Ibarra and then Simoun, John Lloyd Cruz’s piercing and pain-filled eyes reflect his being lost, Sid Lucero is equal parts persistent and vulnerable, Alessandra de Rossi displays her mastery of communicating emotions without words, Susan Africa shows a just-below-the-surface anguish, Ronnie Lazaro oscillates between authority and lunacy so perfectly.

Cherie Gil, Bernardo Bernardo, and Angel Aquino seamlessly convey the scheming character of the Tikbalang.

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In black and white but beautifully-photographed, the forests and caves, cities/towns and open seas, darkness and light of the Philippines are characters in the story as well. The leaves flutter, the mist stops, the rain comes down and moves the characters and the story along.

The movie, certainly, cannot be summarized in a few sentences. There are so many themes that it tackles, none of them new, but all of them persistent.

This makes us wonder: all of these problems have beset Philippine society since before the birth of the nation, but centuries later, we still are plagued with them.

There are those among us, who like Judas Iscariot, will be willing to sell their soul for pieces of silver.

There are those among us who will be willing to abandon independence and nationhood for the sake of business. 

Could it be that Lav Diaz is the modern-day Pilosopo Tasyo, trying to show us a mirror of the Filipino condition and hoping against hope that this generation will heed him?

The Philippine premiere featured two intermissions/breaks at approximately the 3rd and 6th hour marks.

The film, which is graded A by the Cinema Evaluation Board, opens in select cinemas on Black Saturday, March 26, 2016:

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Glorietta, Trinoma, Market! Market!, Fairview Terraces, SM North, SM Megamall, SM Centerpoint, SM Manila, SM Fairview, Robinsons Metro East, Robinsons Galleria, Robinsons Iloilo, Robinsons Bacolod, Gaisano Davao, Screenville Tagbilaran, Greenhills, and KCC Mall in General Santos.

FDCP Cinematheque Centers located in TM Kalaw, Manila; Baguio; Iloilo; and Davao will also screen the award-winning film.

(Read: Where to watch John Lloyd Cruz and Piolo Pascual-starrer Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis)

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Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis stars (L-R) Piolo Pascual, John Lloyd Cruz, Cherie Gil, Bernardo Bernardo, Angel Aquino, among others.
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