Following only a year on from last year’s _Norte: The End of History, From What is Before _sees Lav Diaz return to more familiar territory. Gone is the colour, relative brevity and a literary source, and back comes monochrome, collective memory and pain, and a runtime in excess of five hours.
In Norte, a surprisingly heavily plotted film, almost all takes were loaded with event, foreground and background stuffed with activity. For four whole hours, things are constantly happening. Expectedly, From What is Before is much less momentum focused and more traditionally slow. For large parts of the 5.6 hours, Diaz uses duration to emphasise and elongate the mundane, but also to construct detailed character. More than any of the other two Diaz films I’ve seen, characters are introduced and then built upon richly (The two sisters, in many ways the ideal avatars for Diaz’s films of national hurt.) It is a great use of duration, serving as television does to establish, build, subvert and reinvent character through the time afforded.
Early hours pass largely without dialogue. The natural rhythms of the landscape (including a suitably beautiful/ruinous beach rock formation against which tumultuous waves crash and characters gaze and workshop longingly at) and community (a broad multi-dimensional ensemble) that inhabit emerge, as Diaz gently formulates them into being. Patterns, societal, interpersonal and individual, are examined and fixated on, all before narrative action is introduced, meaning a synthesis between character and place is cemented before it can be dismantled.
It makes for a hard going first two hours, but as a result a much more successful last two, as when mishaps occur they have meaning and impact. More than any other Diaz film,_ From What is Before_ operates in that unique rhythm that the best filmmakers who work in a slow mode can conjure up. Diaz builds a society then destroys it, as military intervention and moral compromise serve to break ties that community made look unbreakable. Diaz’s durational style affords him the time to truly transform, the temporal perseverance heightening the resonance of each momentary cause and effect.
Diaz’s prime interest (announced again at the start of this film with the announcement that these are just stories and memories of a people, and the 1972 setting as Martial Law is about to announced under dictator Ferdinand Marcos) is the Philippine national history and suffering. Wisely though, in this film this interest surfaces late and less bludgeoningly than has come to be expected from a director understandably preoccupied with cruelty and devastation. As a film, it’s one of Diaz's most low key , but as a result also perhaps the most affecting, and the one where the trauma ultimately announces itself the hardest.
There is definitely something to the argument that Diaz, over twenty years and many (long) films down the line, needs to adapt and evolve his style (miserabilism grows old fast without elaboration or maturation) and method (some of the technical work remains shoddy), but due to the mostly hyperbolic praise he receives, is not inclined to or even aware of his shortcomings. Call a man a God enough times, he will think he is one. Its just very hard to not lavish that praise upon him, when the films work as they do.