Lav Diaz has never been accused of directness, but even so his 8.5hr epic, Heremias (Book 1: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) (Unang aklat: Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak) is a curiously symbolic piece, casting its titular hero in the role of the prophet Jeremiah, adrift in an odyssey of faith. With long sections playing out in near real time, extreme long distance shots often static in nature, and black and white photography captured on low res digital video which makes it almost impossible to detect emotional subtlety in the performances of its cast, Heremias is a challenging prospect yet an oddly hypnotic, ultimately moving one.
Diaz begins with a long, static take of a roadway in which a convoy of pedlars is parked while the modern world passes them by in the form of speeding motor cars. Heremias (Ronnie Lazaro) is a member of this timeless nomadic community, travelling along the road selling handicrafts from a cart pulled by a cow. The other pedlars seem worried about Heremias, they describe him as seeming “unwell” and are concerned because he hasn’t been eating. Eventually Heremias makes the fateful decision to go his own way, leaving the safety of the caravan behind to tread his own path. Yet what he finds out on his own amounts to trouble and strife beginning with the theft of his cart and ending with his overhearing a gang of teenage boys outline their plan to rape and murder a local girl.
Diaz spends the first few hours of the film immersing us in the world of the caravan with its routines of singing and eating broken with children’s lullabies and games of basketball. Heremias, however, wants something more than his simple life of community and the security of the familiar. Rather than simply retread familiar routes alone, Heremias follows a solitary, untravelled path which promises little more than aloneness. His cow, in a fine supporting performance, is often less certain of the wisdom of his master’s decision and makes his displeasure known, though Heremias is unwavering. When the cow is suddenly removed from the picture, its absence is very much felt as Heremias is left entirely alone without hope or guidance.
On trying to report the crime to the authorities, Heremias finds that all of his faith in the rule of law has been misplaced. Though the police begin to investigate, it’s clear that they have little interest in solving the crime, eventually asking for a sizeable bribe to complete the job. Later, when Heremias hears the terrible plan of the drunken young men, he tries the police again but finds them unwilling to help as the young men in question are sons of important people. Finally Heremias turns to the church but the priest is unwilling to offer anything more than prayer to save the life of a vulnerable young girl. Heremias, disappointed and with his faith shaken to the core, is left with no other recourse than to strike a bargain with God. Fasting and wandering, Heremias hopes that God will save the girl whom he seems incapable of helping in any other way though Diaz offers no clue if his faith will be repaid.
The film’s title comes from the name of a town which Heremias passes through. A couple once lived there and had a beautiful daughter who was abducted and never seen again, save perhaps for a baby lizard appearing at her parents’ home. This story repeats itself in that of Helena – the young woman who will be raped and murdered according to the tale Heremias overhears whilst watching the young men waste their time on drugs and alcohol inside an abandoned home. Old stories seem to resurface in new but no less tragic ways as the lizard who can tell good men from bad gives way to a discussion of the Japanese who hid in the forests after the war, too ashamed (as the villagers describe it) to return home. Among the executed soldiers was a colonel, Oshima, but the men can’t decide if the Oshima who died was the bad Oshima or another one altogether or if the bad Oshima was really bad at all – he did, so they say, design the water sanitation system at the school to the great benefit of everyone.
Heremias wanders alone through the difficult terrain, falling ever deeper into despair. Though generally impassive, Heremias is allowed two great moments of emotion – the first as he’s overtaken by the enormity of the loss of his cart and cow, and then after his greatest test which leads him to make his fateful bargain with God. The police have failed him, the priest ignored him, and there’s nothing to say he’ll have any more luck with the invisible protector yet with this last descent into the depths of hopelessness he emerges changed, almost saintly, as he agrees to make a personal sacrifice for only the hope that the girl will be saved from her grizzly fate. Aimlessness gives way to purpose, as Heremias adopts the path of the fallen prophet.
Though the low res cinematography and extreme distance shots add to the film’s alienating approach, there are moments of rare beauty as Diaz captures the natural landscape even as it proves hazardous or threatening to man. Unusual sound design completes the effect as the boys’ loud rock music suddenly cuts out while they detail their heinous plans, or ancient folk songs float through the background, eerily echoing ongoing events. Oblique and detached, Diaz’s lengthy spiritual epic resolutely rejects connection yet the cumulative effect of its distancing approach leads to its ambiguous if ultimately moving conclusion.
Heremias loses his cow (dialogue free)