In the interest of full disclosure, I will start this review by stating that I spent time on the set of this movie while writing about It for the September 2015 issue of Esquire Philippines.
Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis largely takes place in missing chapters of Filipino history and literature. On one side of this movie, it imagines a mystical journey for Gregoria de Jesus (Hazel Orencio) as she travels up a mountain in search of the body of her husband, Andres Bonifacio. In the wilderness, she and her party are waylaid by Tikbalang (Bernardo Bernardo, Cherie Gil and Angel Aquino), and encounter a cult that believes in the looming arrival of a Filipino Messiah. The other side of the film fills in the blanks left at the end of El Filibusterismo. Simoun (Piolo Pascual) is on the run following the failure of his bombing plot. Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz) is living on the streets, unable to cope with everything that’s happened. Basilio (Sid Lucero) has joined the revolution, but is still holding on to his yearning to get revenge on Simoun.
Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis is in no uncertain terms the greatest Filipino fanfiction. Not only does it fill in the blanks left in the final chapters of El Filibusterismo, it weaves the narrative back into our history. These characters, created by Rizal, are now in a world that speaks his name. The movie basically starts with Rizal’s death, and the film jumps to his characters as they deal with the repercussions of the execution. The movie makes no distinction between the fiction and non-fiction. It presents the country as a place that cannot be unbound from its mythology.
Mythology is in practically every frame of this movie. Its characters spend most of their time in strange, dreamlike jungles, mysterious light from unknown sources streaming through mist and smoke. They speak openly of tikbalang and giants and magical amulets. It is indistinguishable from the way they speak of freedom and of country. The movie never really hides its intentions: these characters, though drawn from the past or from fiction, aren’t really different from who we are today in the real world. Like them, we are still yearning to be free, yearning to understand what it means to be a Filipino.
The film’s length will likely discourage many people. I cannot say that eight hours of cinema is for everyone, but I will that among Lav Diaz’s work, this is one of the easiest to digest. It is an eventful and inventive eight hours of film, with plenty of amazing visuals to keep one going. It is a pretty straightforward narrative, the motivations of every character clear at any given moment. There are rougher portions, scenes where the seams of the production show. But on average, this is a thoroughly engaging film, filled with beautiful dialogue, and really interesting things to say about the nation.
It also helps a lot that the acting is so good. The big news of course, is that two big mainstream stars have taken part in this production. Both Piolo Pascual and John Lloyd Cruz look as motivated as they’ve ever been. Of the two, Cruz gets the meatier role, and he certainly makes the most of it. His first scene with Sid Lucero, where the two basically discuss what happened to their characters follow the events of the novel, is bizarrely affecting. But the real story here is Hazel Orencio, whose as Gregoria de Jesus is just phenomenal. There is a scene somewhere in the middle of this story where the character finally allows herself a moment of anger, and it is at least beautiful and terrifying. And it would take too long to mention all of the great actors that took part in this film. It is an embarrassment of riches.
In its eight hours, Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis becomes many things. It is fanfiction. It is a loving tribute of the national hero. It is a historical tale. It is a record of crimes. It is a record of madness. There’s a section that plays as a tiny morality tale. It is an examination of our poetry and our music and our mythology. It is an exploration with our relationship to the divine, to the supernatural, and to the all-too mundane. Yes, it is eight hours long, but speaking as someone who regularly sees eight or more hours of cinema in a day, I can say that it is rare to get an eight hours of cinema that as engaging and as powerful as this.