From What Is Before

The Philippines, 1972. Mysterious things are happening in a remote barrio. Wails are heard from the forest, cows are hacked to death, a man is found bleeding to death at the crossroad and houses are burned. Ferdinand E. Marcos announces Proclamation No. 1081 putting the entire country under Martial Law.


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  • ★★★★★ review by Josiah Morgan on Letterboxd

    Where is my child now? Where is my child now? Where is my child now? Where is my child now?

    - Math is hard.

    - I agree. Darn that math

    +1 to the list of films to see in theatres before I die.

    Any preconceptions and misgivings I had about watching another Diaz film after the great-but-missing-something experience that was Norte evaporated within the first thirty minutes of his latest venture, From What Is Before. Diaz's camerawork and screenplay here is out of this world. Creating a transcendental and hypnotic atmosphere seen only in the very best of films, Diaz takes an approach which will throw off your average viewer, and hypnotise the rest.

    After a fast moving, in-color, violent jaunt into the realm of the tortured in Norte, Diaz pulls himself back and grows as a filmmaker here after just one year: the limitation of budget and location means often the actors he has to work with are not the best, but often his camera and overall feel for the cinema will save a scene. Other actors are incredible. Joselina, and all the female roles are played to perfection, yet it's the men that falter.

    From What Is Before is about suffering. It's about death. It's about control and the struggle for power. And it's perfect. The final act is really the point where the film takes off, but without the first two acts, it would feel flat and unrevelatory. We know this characters. We breathe these characters. After six hours, we've lived with these people for a significant length of time in their lives.

    Pathetic fallacy is a vice Diaz uses often, and it is the scenes where it begins to rain in which the scope of the overall piece comes into view. Yet only at the end can you see what Diaz is aiming to achieve, as you look back at the journey you have just undergone.

    Lav Diaz's camera forces the viewer into submission even from the (relatively early) first hour mark as a woman sings a song for over seven minutes after the death of her child, as the people listening slowly break down. It's spiritual and metaphoric and what exactly it stands for I do not know, but I love it.

    Where Norte struggles to find a balance between storytelling and emotion, From What Is Before hits the bullseye almost straight away. I wholeheartedly believe, after viewing this film, that Diaz physically needs a run time of over five hours to let his stories breathe to their fullest extent (although I haven't seen some of his shortest films yet).

    As over the first three hours the body count subtly rises, Diaz uses his camera to trick the audience into believing they have seen things they haven't, tricking the audience into believing they know things they don't: and it is these expectations which he ultimately reverses in on themselves and never meets - as one character utters the words 'looking after the ranch is tiring', we cut to a shot of him doing the aforementioned task of looking after the ranch: he sits, silently. It doesn't look like hard work at all. Such is the nature of Diaz's character build-up.

    Familiar relationships are formed and destroyed in front of our eyes, characters wade across and over the screen, never caring to make themselves known to the audience: the camera is never intrusive, the camera is never a camera, it just is.

    The most simple objects; a rock, a picture frame, a vase; all take on new life in the context and scenery surrounding them. Each object is personified and given a new meaning and use. Rather than the film being defined by that pictured on screen, what is pictured on screen is defined by the film: the way all the best films are.

    Innocence is the second key theme here. While the women are burdened by the truths they see, the men are prejudiced and blinded by their own beliefs. The young children roam free at night, not understanding any forthcoming consequence of their actions. Their lives are simplistic yet impossible, clearly fabrications of Diaz's mind: almost definitely the intention trying to be conveyed.

    An almost definite lock for my #1 film of 2015 -- although I said the same thing after Hard To Be a God -- and we're only three months in (is it a coincidence that the two best films of the year so far are in black and white?).

    Everything here is perfection, from the camera to the acting to the perfectly timed cuts. And once the devastating final act hits, you'll be left breathless, waiting for more - until you realise: it's over.

  • ★★★½ review by PUNQ on Letterboxd

    Norway might have popularized 'Slow television', but Philippines' Lav Diaz is a creator that's popularizing 'Slow movies'. Ever since I learned about Lav Diaz and have wanted to see his movies and now I finally had the chance to see his Mula sa kung ano ang noon [From What is Before] (2014) stretching over 5 1/2 hours!

    In a way watching this reminded me of movies before the days of editing. Back in 1900-1910 when they wouldn't cut chase scenes before everyone had passed the camera regardless how slow the last person would be before cutting to the next scene. And that's a technique Diaz uses in a effective way. Staging long shots where you after a few seconds notice something moving far away and watch them in snail speed come closer until they pass the camera.

    While the idea of watching such a exaggerated long movie might turn many off, the length never became an issue because Diaz has such an eye for the visuals. Every shot is framed to perfection with an eternal value. There is so much ambiance that one get drawn to the surroundings regardless what's going on. An bigger issue is that the story is a bit fragmented regardless of having so much time telling it. There is too many half-told destinies for this to become a complete revelation and that's where this poetic film feels most disappointing.

    Diaz brings a very tragic tale from the days of Marcos and martial law took the country. We live in a very small village where there are several sad faiths and the realness to all this is daunting. There is always rain. There is always a struggle that can't be expressed. This is brutal to the end.... until the final second which had me in stitches! Good to see Lav Diaz have some self-irony about his serious film making!

  • ★★★★★ review by Still Here🏳️‍🌈 on Letterboxd

    Perhaps in its honesty lies its greatest sympathy. It never denies human nature, it shows its cruelty and incomprehensibility. Until the very end it describes suffering and agony, this curse called life. But despite the very dark themes and tensions, it is ultimately as human as today's cinema has gotten. Because it doesn't lie. It doesn't belong to its nature to tell lies about events nor people. And I think that this is Lav Diaz' sympathy and humanism. Another fact that makes it even stronger is that he tells about his people, reveals the truth. He doesn't hide it, he doesn't hide the past and what is what. Unlike boring commercial filmmakers to whom life seems to be nothing but money and celebration, Diaz understands history and that only by opening, accepting and understanding the past, we can create a future. That is why he makes cinema. When he won at Locarno, he dedicated his leopard to his people and world peace. He opens the scars and lets them breath so that they won't go septic.

    This honesty is also presented in the way he films. The style is very simplistic, shot in black and white. Usually his films consist on static long shots in front of which everything develops. We trace this trait easily back to Bazin's classical theories and set Diaz against montage. Those who still claim that montage is the basis of cinema are ancient and behind their time because montage is used more easily to "evoke (cheat) emotion". And because Diaz' people have been lead by illusion, he doesn't want to even hint to anything manipulative. That's also a reason why we never hear music in his films. Just we, camera (the window) and life. This style to shoot extremely long pictures with black and white which is read by some as the most pretentious tool in today's cinema fits Diaz as perfectly as it could. "Pretentious" is the most laziest claim against something one doesn't like or feel irritated instead of taking the time to find out why one actually feels what one feels. It launches reaction in me which starts automatically rejecting the people who use that word.

    Their load and suffering gains the reflection it needs. Young boy who doesn't know his past and never will in the country which doesn't know what it is; simple man who has lived his whole life in the land relying on "simple truths" which seem have the most truth of all; young woman who has taken care of her disabled sister with "healing abilities" all of her life; priest trying to maintain his light; alienated wine-seller desperate for love; poet who has tried to find poetry by moving around... Their feelings and thoughts can be felt. Diaz is masterful poet of mental landscapes; rumbling of thunder, naked cliffs, big raindrops, gigantic waves and jungle inseparable from characters in it are all just a way to tell about these characters but also to show where they belong to. This is Philippines, here they born and die. And hopefully have time to live in the middle.

    Heartbreaking images and acting fills the film. In Birthing of Century Diaz had problems to control the acting by the end where it kicked over. But in Norte and thankfully again in From What Is Before, everything is intelligently balanced; characters are interpreted with deep, almost philosophical pace where eyes no matter how distant they are from the camera reveal melancholic and dark truths. But perhaps ironically acting in Birthing of Century is more powerful because actors take better use of the running time of image. They can raise from one emotion to another quietly but spontaneously. In From What Is Before we don't see such performances but on the other hand they probably wouldn't fit the tone either. Their silence demonstrates about their powerlessness and suspicion in front of something so much bigger. When Sito sits on the hill after his impulsive action, his weakness is showed in the simple sit-rise-sit movement. He doesn't shout because he knows nobody hears him, he doesn't kick the ground because it can't ease everything. His head is full of darkness but he has seen so much that in this simple move he stops the clock of the time bomb, crams another secret inside of him and continues his life. It doesn't get easier. This shows incredible maturity in both Diaz' expression and Sito's worldview.

    I have always admired films which ultimately, indirectly directly, pay huge respect for life instead of simply just shouting out loud how cinema is life, bigger than life etc. I consider Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry to be perhaps the greatest film ever made and I respect Iranian cinema for its sense in the relationship of art and life. By showing in cinema that it is impossible to control, they show that ultimately it as life. In The River Jean Renoir shows life with simple joke ("It's a girl" - they start laughing) to which we without noticing start laughing at and realize how involved we were in the film and its characters. Lav Diaz does that as well but by the means I in the opening described. By being honest to the extreme point, to the point that we might find cruel, to the point that might make us sick. Who would show this if one wouldn't believe that cinema can be crucial part in showing truth? Diaz cinema is the most beautiful cinema of today.

  • ★★★★½ review by Vincent Lao on Letterboxd

    Clocking in exact 338 minutes, director Lav Diaz’s sprawling epic of a crumbling Filipino rural town is a personal, deeply ingrained, immersive contemplation of the past and how far a particular civilization has become. If his most mainstream film to date Norte, the End of History, (which is his shortest film at 250 minutes) gives the audience a taste of Diaz’s cinematic world; From What Is Before, a challenging return to the director’s black and white aesthetic, is actually a hardcore dive to the soul of Lav Diaz. There’s always that daunting task for every audience member if they’re watching a Diaz film, but having seen Norte, I felt I’m ready for such challenge and I was immediately entranced.

    The first tip in watching a Diaz film is to go with no preconceived expectations. Leave your thoughts out, and let the images blind you. It is that step that will make you immediately immerse by his environment and his command of filmmaking. It is an acquired taste, and a challenge, but it’s really worth it.

    As a Filipino myself, the simplistic but thoughtful rhetoric of Diaz’ screenplay makes the challenge easier. If you know the history, the better, the easier. From What Is Before centers on a town on a cusp of socio-political change during the 1970s before President Ferdinand Marcos declares Martial Law. The town is in between the past and the present. The old is struggling its place with the new. And what’s amazing about the film is even if it runs like a modern epic, the film is surprisingly intimate and deeply personal in its contemplations and struggles. The characters have fallen into despair, but they have become the quintessential representation of a dying Filipino society struggling to be reborn.

    Among Diaz’ stunning repertory players, lead actress Hazel Orencio is a standout in her psychologically and emotionally stirring interpretation of a selfless woman willing to give everything for her mentally disabled sister. Another is Mailes Kanapi’s scene-stealing performance as the town’s meddler and peddler. There’s an interesting interplay within the actors and Lav Diaz. These actors are fully immerse in his world and brings such vibrant authenticity to the material.

    Overall, From What Is Before is a beautifully stark, poetic, albeit challenging film that exposes not only the real Filipino experience but also an intimate conversation with a director who devotes his art and passion for cinema to his people and his roots. Still undistributed in America.

  • ★★★★★ review by Smart_Monkey on Letterboxd

    one of the most haunting, jaw dropping films i've ever seen. a trance-inducing exploration of a remote barrio in the Phillippines during the Marcos regime. it makes us feel at home in its environment, as though we're one of the villagers, then destroys everything before our eyes. the crawling pace fits the story perfectly, stretching this sense of dread for so long. you feel lost and helpless, just as the characters. there are plenty of movies that paint life purely as suffering, but very few of them make it feel real. and this movie presenting a very real depiction of suffering makes sense considering Lav Diaz lived through this era, pulling from many personal experiences/feelings (which comes through, without a doubt).

    there's a deeply sinister air looming throughout the film that becomes thicker as we creep along. a feeling of impending doom and hopelessness that builds and builds and builds to the point where it's just suffocating. the third act is so crushing and disturbing, i was at a loss for words to describe what i just witnessed once it was over.

    cinematography and performances, for the most part, were amazing. the lack of music and very natural sound design added to the hypnotic, quiet first hour or so. on the flip side, it really gave support to the feeling of hopelessness and genuineness of suffering. everything feels real. for as otherworldly as this film gets, the events unfolding are very realistically portrayed, it felt like a documentary at points.

    stunning, soul-crushing, disturbing, well crafted, a modern masterpiece.

    EDIT: and for the record, the length is absolutely justified. for as pointless and unnecessarily long some sequences seem, i think it adds to the experience. circling back to some earlier points in my review, the crawling pace and quiet slowness are what creates this snowball of dread. as another reviewer here stated, the impact of the third act wouldn't be the same if the first two acts weren't there.

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