Panahon Ng Halimaw
Directed and Written by Lav Diaz

My Twitter feed regularly explodes with governmental disgruntlement. Sometimes I weigh in, too. I don’t have many Twitter friends from the other side of the outrage and the ones I do have are rather sober, nuanced, rational even, quiet mostly. This gives me a rather inaccurate lay of the land in that I only see the outrage, in all its permutations, and the source of the outrage, without annotations. I realize that Twitter is a pocket universe and not the whole of the country. But from this lopsided, perhaps even insular, vantage point, I sense the lack of a cause-and-effect with traction, an echo chamber that preaches to the choir, a hole of indifference where a robust and determined opposition should be.  I sense, really, and ultimately, my own helplessness, and perhaps it’s our sense of helplessness as well.  I sense, too, the usual wag-the-dog theatrics all regimes dabble in and how we keep falling for it. Lav Diaz doesn’t have a Twitter account but his new film, Panahon Ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil), ostensibly addresses this lack of a conduit to channel our surges of indignation, to weaponize our clamor. The poet-hero is a recurring figure in his cinema but the poet-hero here, played by Piolo Pascual, and his works, are ineffectual in rousing a population mired in their own complacency. Halimaw seems to be questioning, too, if all our rages really amount to anything, whether as woke tweets, as soc med pulpits, as protest songs or as art-house cinema.

Perhaps because he was there, and perhaps, too, because it constantly threatens to re-animate itself in a potentially more sinister, more dangerous form, Marcos-era Martial Law is something of a recurring milieu with Diaz, first re-purposing it as a science-fictional totalitarian dystopia in Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Jesus. Revolutionary) then many years later, as this pall of almost sentient darkness hovering over a small town that eventually eats itself in Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon (From What Was Before).  Panahon Ng Halimaw may be set in 1979 Mindanao, during Martial Law, but it’s obvious that the bleak landscape, with its rash of extrajudicial killings albeit targeting straggler revolutionaries, insidious dog-wagging as a form of mind control, not to mention a charismatic leader who blathers indecipherably and literally wears two faces, is meant not just to parallel but to overlap with the present regime.

Panahon Ng Halimaw had a brief domestic theatrical run. Twelve years ago, when I first stumbled on and became an adherent of his cinema, coming in blind into what turned out to be the first half of the still uncompleted Heremias, the notion of a Lav Diaz film having a theatrical run would’ve been nothing short of absurd, certainly miraculous. But this is the fifth Lav Diaz film to have a theatrical run in as many years. At this point, one would like to think there would be a significant drop in the number of people you need to hand-hold and disclaim to when it came to Lav Diaz, when it came to so-called slow cinema, which one can argue his films don’t necessarily fall under, and when it came, really, to any film that isn’t the over-stimulated franchise pulp that has become the only normal in cinema nearly every movie-goer is willing to swallow. That isn’t the case, sadly. But then again, Panahon Ng Halimaw is a slightly more difficult Lav Diaz film to shill, let alone metabolize, even for Lav Diaz stalwarts like me. It is perhaps his less allegorical and certainly his most urgent, most forthright, arguably his most serious work. But it never lapses into pulpit nor anachronism. It may in fact be his most formally playful. Panahon Ng Halimaw is, after all, a rock opera, but not in the way an Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera is a rock opera, of course.

The argument over whether form should trump content in socially-aware cinema is low-key enough to make it seem as if we’re not even having the argument at all,  but Panahon Ng Halimaw is  all but demanding we do. Deconstructed musicals are not virgin territory for arthouse cinema, of course. But this is more than a mere deconstructed musical. Borne out of urgency but shot through with resignation, its entire libretto is sung a capella in the recitative style by a cast that’s vocally uneven on purpose.  There is no rouse in its call to arms, there is no hook in the songs to distract us from the tenor of its narrative weave, given over as they are to the transformative whim of  the characters singing them:  Bituin Escalante’s benevolent narrator and Shaina Magdayao’s crusading doctor, coming on like snatches of  emotive, melodic beauty,  while Hazel Orencio and Joel Saracho’s government henchmen, are ominous, somnolent, atonal. It takes some easing into, give it that, but perhaps easing into it isn’t the point, and coming in a form that you expect to ease into is. Conflating the Marcos regime with the present one is perhaps Diaz’s way of telling us that history will teach us nothing except that it repeats itself, and what he’s trying to tell us is something we ought to already know, but perhaps having it sung might make us lean in. “Mahirap gisingin ang nagtulug-tulugan” ("You can't wake up someone pretending to sleep") says a character in Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis, a film that was also about the cyclical nature of the political violence that besets us. We’re not quite there yet. But you can feel the stupor singing in our bones.

*Originally published in Esquire.

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