For madness unleashes its fury in the space of pure vision.
– Michel Foucault
Persistent rain falls, reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s rains, supplied by dark, ponderous skies overhead. Desolate landscape, stark diorama: Rock, sand and boulder. These are, in truth, a wasteland of lava and volcanic debris. Farther behind looms Mayon Volcano in the background, an imposing, threatening monolith of nature. Here and there, trunks and stumps of trees stand, battered, windswept, leafless and lifeless. Suspicious calm, suspicious rondure of newly turned terrain: something else fattens and bloats this land. Except for the percussion of rain, nothing now stirs, until we see a speck of life in the distant background, a man we learn shortly, slowly making his way across difficult terrain. This man is Benjamin Agusan, a former activist and a poet of some renown, returning from a long exile in Russia to his hometown of Padang in the Southern Luzon region of Bicol. We see him weeping, disconsolate, not unmoved by the dark spectacle he has witnessed, and the grave irony is: these are his last, desperate days of sanity and reason.
Understand that this man returns to an unrecognizable land in the aftermath of a natural catastrophe that has devastated his native ground and much of the neighboring countryside. Understand that he returns with a heavy personal freightage: the dead of the past, the deceased of the present, the onset of madness and the madness of conscience. Like a ghost, with no fanfare, he returns to the bosom of childhood friends, Catalina the sculptor, a former lover, and Teodoro, a man of many artistic talents who has opted for a simple life as a family man and a fisherman. Each one has sustained a familial or personal loss in the wake of this calamity, but we gradually realize through the thicket of dialectical discourse, their favorite pastime, that their sense of loss is made doubly bitter by intense resentment with a corrupt and callous regime.
Filmed in stark and brooding black and white, Death in the Land of Encantos catalogues not just the casualties of natural calamity but the casualties of state repression and dereliction. Enacting the tragic but possibly heroic story of one Benjamin Agusan with many personal and political overtones, writer-director Lav Diaz intersperses his 9-hour epic with damning actual documentary footage taken in the aftermath of Typhoon Reming, a super typhoon that unleashed not just its own fury but Mayon Volcano’s destructive wrath. What these footages invariably paint, through a series of interviews with locals in December 2006, is a portrait of a people devastated by wrathful nature, degraded psyche and dehumanizing regimes. This is the Bicol region, but it could just as easily be Basilan or Baguio in this miserable archipelago, it wouldn’t have mattered.
Benjamin Agusan’s story embodies a story that is all our own, his is the allegorical tale of one long-suffering nation. Little by little, we learn through snippets of flashbacks and exposition about the painful verities of his life: his mother going mad and dying in an asylum, his sister subsequently committing suicide; his father abandoned to die alone; and Hamin himself, while sojourning in Russia, developing the symptoms of lunacy. We learn through Hamin’s confrontation with a shadowy military operative that his activism and political poetry have earned him arch-enemies among the military. We learn of his torture at the hands of this same man. We learn of the probable death of Amalia, Hamin’s lover, at the height of the typhoon. Hamin is embattled on all sides, his tormentors encompass all kinds: man, himself, nature.
The descent into madness, thus, figures prominently in Death in the Land of Encantos. Madness here is not a simple determinism of heredity but a function of unbearable witness. What overwhelms Hamin is not just the anguish of personal tragedies but that of havoc on a nation. He is not a faultless soul, but we witness that neither is he a poet insulated in an ivory tower. Towards the end, the strain of madness becomes more frequent. We see him sleeping in ungodly spaces, wedged between rocks, sprawled on waysides. We hear him literally addressing his ghosts. We hear of him wandering aimlessly in various stages of unreason. But his last few moments of lucidity are defining, none more so than what transpires at denouement: a recitation not of his poetry but of his most profound creeds and allegiances.
Against this backdrop of mental collapse, of death and devastation, however, is the story of friendship. Hamin, Teodoro and Catalina are veritable kindred spirits: friends and ex-lovers who know each other’s darkest secrets and even recite poems to each other. These friends virtually talk in codes, their conversations are the stuff of scholarly discussions. They may have outgrown some of their idealistic ardors but they remain socially attuned: theirs is a bitterness against “crocodiles and rapacious kind” who prey on the country. They deplore the latest political killings, but what of their involvement? Token? Gestural?
Corrupt artists, as much as corrupt politicians, come in for stinging critiques here. Cultural ciphers, seekers after fame, socially myopic – these are what artists are, according to Catalina and Teodoro. Beyond heroic commitments to causes and ideologies, artists merely seek the cult of the self. Yet there is a strong suspicion of a redemptive moment at the end for Hamin and what he stands for. In Heremias, Diaz, with almost didactic intent, gives his title character a defining moment to salvage and transcend his passive soul and he obliges. Here, in Death in the Land of Encantos, redemption has an ambiguous edge: as Hamin braves the last moments of torture, he recites the most defiant poetry he knows, the National Anthem. Whether this is a martyr’s act or his death wish as imminent madness confronts him, the truth might just vindicate him.