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Eight Hours and a Sore Bottom: A Review of “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery”
by Rose Finlay

Lav Diaz Philippines/Singapore

When I first heard that the Competition section was to  show an eight-hour-and-five-minute-long film A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis), I was  intrigued. How could an audience feasibly be asked to sit through such a long  movie? How could the film possibly hold the attention of the audience even if  they did manage to sit for so long? And, perhaps most importantly, could the  director really make a coherent and accessible film that lasted eight hours  long? With these questions in mind, I stocked up my bag full of snacks and  water and plopped myself down in the upper balcony of the Berlinale Palast  ready to face the beast of a movie.

I'm fairly certain that no matter what one says,  anyone who buys a ticket to watch an eight hour film is probably doing it for  the bragging rights. Really, it doesn't affect the quality of the film; after  about three hours, it becomes painful to have to sit still in a cramped cinema  seat. Unfortunately, for A Lullaby to the  Sorrowful Mystery, I began to wonder why I was there within the first hour  ("Only seven more to go!" I kept internally telling myself.)  Considering the number of people who left the theater in that first hour, I was  not alone in my assessment.

Despite what I am sure were the great aspirations of  director Lav Diaz, he forgot one major aspect of filmmaking when creating his  magnum opus: the story. At its face, Lullaby is a fantastical tale of the Philippine Revolution divided into two distinct  parts. The first is that of the relationship of two revolutionaries, the poetic  and sensitive Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz) and the radical (Piolo Pascual) Simoun.  Isagani blames Simoun for the destruction of his faith in the revolution and  their violent confrontation leads to a painful trek through the mountains in  search of moral and spiritual healing. The second part focuses on Gregoria de  Jesus (an actual important historic figure of the revolution), as she searches  the mountains for her husband Andres Bonifacio, the founder and supreme leader  of the Katipunan revolutionary movement, who was captured and gravely injured  by the Spanish. De Jesus is joined by several others, each with their own  tragic backstories, and find their journey often interrupted by Encantos,  mythical horse spirits, and the Colorum, a religious cult residing in the caves  of the mountains. Despite the richness of the cultural and historical backdrop,  there isn’t much to the story. And what little exists is rendered practically  incomprehensible to the foreign viewer as there is no explanations or context  given throughout the film.

The result is a rambling, incoherent, eight  hours that can only be described as an act of extreme self-indulgence on the  part of Diaz. That's not to say that there was a lack of artistry. Diaz's  visual brilliance often shines through, and the cinematography and lighting  were particularly on point throughout the eight hours. However, not even visual  beauty can save a rambling eight-hour long snooze fest from itself. Perhaps  this is the reason that the job of director, screenwriter, and editor are  usually completed by different people, to prevent such egotistical tripe.  Still, the international jury did award Lullaby  to the Sorrowful Mystery the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize for opening new  perspectives. I’m not sure what perspectives they were talking about, unless  they mean finally bringing home the idea that no film, particularly one so  incoherent, should be allowed to be made.