By: Mark Cutler
Director: Lav Diaz
Runtime: 234 mins | Genre: Drama, Musical
The first thing to say about Lav Diaz’s latest film, Season of the Devil, is that there’s a lot of singing. For many of his fans, this comes as a surprise. Across his nearly hundred-hour filmography, Diaz never incorporates a traditional musical score, and seldom makes use of diegetic song or performance. Given their similarly sparse dialogue, his films are generally steeped in near or total silence.
Season of the Devil is thus immediately striking in that it not only prominently incorporates music, but is, indeed, a kind of musical. Because of his abstinence from extra-diegetic music, a moving camera, rapidfire edits and other long-engrained conventions of narrative filmmaking, Diaz has been associated with a kind of cinematic naturalism. His filmography is almost entirely concerned with the long history of social and political iniquity in the Philippines. Many of his stories are based on true events, drawn from his own life or from the lives of people close to him. The films’ expansive runtimes allow their characters’ lives to unfold without the artifice of drama. We fans keep going to see his eight- and ten-hour films because he is almost alone in offering us a chance to sink so deeply into another reality, even though that reality is often an unpleasant one.
But it is a mistake to think that Diaz is beholden to a pretense of strict realism. Though his films explore the real—and often ongoing—political injustices afflicting his home country, they almost always contain, in addition, a dimension of the supernatural. Curses, prophecies, spirits and demons from Philippine myth, all weave throughout his historical narratives, giving them an air of otherworldly evil that echoes and dramatises the very real evils his human characters inflict on one another.
In this sense, then, Season of the Devil is not as radical a departure for Diaz as it seems. The singing, though more persistent, is less overtly fantastical than the Engkanto and other spirits who populate his films. Nevertheless, it reflects the general sense of unreality spread through the world of the film, as a violent militia, led by the terrifying Chairman Narciso, destabilizes a rural community through a combination of propaganda and superstition.
In the first scene, we meet the two key members of this militia. They lay out, in classic Disney-villain-song style, the plan to cement their own power over the villagers of an isolated region of the Philippines, by (1) killing both political dissidents and innocent but unlucky passersby in a torrent of senseless, randomised violence, and (2) blaming the violence on nebulous, external threats—demons, malevolent creatures, communists and foreigners—which (of course) only Narciso and his heavily-armed gang can forfend.
Most of the film tracks the militia’s basically-unimpeded execution of this plan. Otherwise, we follow the ostensible heroes of the film: a loose affiliation of political dissidents who try to dissuade the public of their superstitious and xenophobic misbeliefs. Though their narratives rarely intersect, these figures all have similar histories and motivations. Having lost loved ones—partners or children—to the militia’s chaotic violence, they are all trapped somewhere between grief and paralysing fear. Unwilling to leave, but unable to fight back, they make feeble attempts to expose the tactics of Narciso’s gang and compel the public to rise up against the looming fascist takeover.
It should be noted that the film’s dialogue is not entirely sung. At first, only Narciso’s militia sings. Through the whole film, they deliver all of their threats in peppy, repetitive chants that often break out into summer camp la-la-las. They sing when they plan, when they interrogate, when they kill. The civilians, by contrast, speak naturally for the first half hour or so. It is only in their interactions with the militia that they begin to sing. In this way, it feels as though the militia’s ideology of cheerful brutality begins to infect the rest of the world. The militia’s songs are propagandistic, consisting of endless repetitions of short, slogan-like lyrics. Everyone who comes into contact with the militia must literally sing along to their tune, as though submitting to their moralistic and reductive worldview.
After that, the film itself plunges into the militia’s hellish world of song. The dissidents all begin to sing everything they’re thinking about, whether they’re alone or with each other. All the songs in Season of the Devil are fairly repetitive, but where the militia’s are always catchy, upbeat chants, the dissidents’ songs are generally mournful, slower, and somewhat tuneless. This, combined with their somewhat vague characters, makes it hard to invest much in their long and looping streams of consciousness.
These characters will be very familiar to Diaz fans: unable to move past their grief because they don’t know what or how to grieve, because their loved ones were killed without meaning, or are still presumed missing. This very particular kind of grief is no doubt profoundly personal to Diaz and to everyone who lived through the Marcos regime. It is a theme he—like his characters—seems compelled to return to again and again. Nevertheless, it is a theme he executes more masterfully in earlier works like Melancholia. In that film, Diaz’s narrative and stylistic austerity serves to deepen the patient viewer’s understanding of his characters’ internal lives. We come to appreciate the profound traumas these characters suffer by witnessing, in an unabbreviated fashion, their monumental efforts to repress or release themselves from those traumas. It is for this reason that the long silences, the scenes in which ‘nothing happens’, are a vital feature of Diaz’s method. Yet in Season of the Devil, those silences are hard to come by, replaced for the most part by endless, sung exposition.
The didacticism necessitated by the singing format hinders Season of the Devil in at least one other way. The film’s narrative thrust is ostensibly this battle over the minds of the villagers: the militia’s efforts to sow a feeling of panic and distrust, and the dissidents’ efforts to rationally dispel that feeling. Yet we rarely if ever hear what the villagers themselves have to say. They are mostly talked about, without themselves doing any talking. Rather, we understand that the militia is winning and the dissidents are losing primarily because the militia and the dissidents both sing about it. In this way, what is supposedly most at stake feels frustratingly abstract, as though it is happening somewhere far away.
Diaz has already made enough genuine masterpieces to justify any narrative or stylistic departure he wishes to explore, even if—like the brief move to colour for Norte: The End of History—those departures end up as anomalies in his filmography. Nevertheless, Diaz’s choice to set the bulk of Season of the Devil’s dialogue to song does more to hinder the film’s effect than underscore it, constraining the complexity of what characters can express, yet forcing them to spend longer expressing it. When the conceit works, it is at once entrancing and disturbing. But it often does not work. Season of The Devil deals with a subject—the institution of nationalist fascism—that is both central within Diaz’s overall project, and which will feel especially pertinent, right now, to many Western audiences. But Diaz’s intimate understanding of that subject isn’t well-conveyed by the film’s exaggerated, musical reality. Season of The Devil ends up feeling overly reductive, as though it too has succumbed to the militia’s worldview.