Lav Diaz’s penchant for ethical quandaries and psychological angst has earned him comparisons to Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment inspired Diaz’s Norte, the End of History (2013), in which a radicalized youth spirals into despair after committing murder. Now the prolific Filipino filmmaker gives us The Woman Who Left (2016), a brooding, existentialist noir, loosely based on a short story, “God Sees the Truth, but Waits,” by another Russian great, Tolstoy. The film is a story of solidarity and redemption, and its main strength is a panoramic vision of the Philippines’ socioeconomic woes.
Horacia Somarostro (Charo Santos-Cancio), a woman wrongly imprisoned for murder, leaves custody after 30 years and, with a tip from a guilt-ridden jailmate, searches for the man who framed her. By now, Horacia’s husband is dead, and her son has gone missing. Horacia tries to find him, with the help of her daughter, but to no avail. Rather than rejoin the middle class, Horacia keeps company with the poor. She sells her property, leaves the proceeds to her housekeepers, and transforms herself into Renata, the owner of a modest eatery. Wearing a cap pulled over her eyes and man’s clothes as disguise on her night perambulations, she befriends local outcasts: a destitute street food vendor and his family, a mentally ill female vagrant, and a suicidal transgender prostitute called Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz). Benevolent yet distant, Horacia inspires awe, as if she were their patron saint.
Diaz’s relationship to religion is wonderfully complex. Faith gives his minor characters gravitas, even as their beliefs also come across as mere superstition. They blame their fate on divine will rather than on the social disenfranchisement that is one of Diaz’s recurrent themes. Horacia takes the deranged girl home to wash her, gives the vendor money for his son’s operation, and tends to Hollanda after a vicious attack. But her actions are dictated more by human decency than by faith. Ironically, when Horacia finally finds Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael De Mesa), the gangster ex who framed her, she first sees him inside a church. Diaz alludes to faith’s social function in breaking rigid class divisions. At the same time, the priests’ closing an eye on the source of Trinidad’s money makes them accomplices in perpetuating the unjust social order.
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Horacia’s redemption is thrown into sharp relief against the background of class differences. As in social-minded 19th-century novels, the contrast between the rich and the poor is constantly foregrounded: The well-lighted brick homes loom in the night as Horacia and the street vendor walk the muddy paths, squat in the dirt and compare notes on how to best fight local petty thieves. Horacia’s quest for justice is complicated by Trinidad’s security and influence. In one chilling scene, the area’s poor, with no land titles to speak of, are evicted, their shacks demolished.
Diaz marries his sweeping narrative arc with supreme visual restraint. The flourishes of Dostoyevsky’s histrionic style and Tolstoy’s lush details are absent from the director’s monochromatic feature. Dostoevsky, particularly, gives us a sense of peering closely at troubled souls, down to their dirty cuticles and unwholesome breath. In Diaz’s film, the human figure, captured in long to medium shots, blends with the background. Such framing makes it easier to recall conjunctions of bodies than individual faces.
This style serves Diaz well, for the most part. Horacia’s transformation from vengeful to someone who forsakes violence could be more pointed. Still, Diaz’s distance, particularly in the way he shows how even the most hardened criminals, like Trinidad, pass for upstanding citizens, is a nice touch of Brechtian irony. After Horacia locates Trinidad — who, we learn, could not accept her spurning his amorous advances and framed her out of spite — we hear him confess his past to a local priest. Less a tormented soul than a hardened and cynical sinner, Trinidad tries to cleanse his guilt with lavish handouts. In Diaz’s moralist framing, Horacia’s small acts of charity tower over Trinidad’s demonstrative virtue, as does Hollanda’s sacrifice. After drinking with Horacia one night and learning her tragic story, Hollanda slips out with Horacia’s gun. Next we find Hollanda in jail, badly beaten. Hers is clearly an act of solidarity, and love.
Diaz’s long takes can slip into a pedestrian mode, but there is suppleness to his night photography. The rich chiaroscuros evoke noirish dread, especially in scenes near the end of the film, as Horacia searches for her disappeared son in the streets and bazaars of Manila. In the finale, she speaks a few lines in voiceover that recall the stories she used to write in jail. Horacia has come full circle. She still struggles with the ghosts of her past. But in this prevailing darkness, the empathy that Hollanda showed her is a source of strength.