I admit that I have cheated a bit. I didn’t watch the whole six hours in one go. Not the second time. I did so the first time, though. I watched it at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year. So while I am cheating, I’m not really. This film happened to become a very convenient subject for today’s blog. I had to re-watch it for the chapter I’m working on.
Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012) precedes Norte (2013), and is by all means a Lav Diaz film; shot in black-and-white, giving his characters space and time to develop in their own pace, and dealing with controversial issues that have arisen in the context of colonialism and dictatorship in the Philippines. There is a lot you can say about the film. I found it to be his most complex, and most powerful film to date.
In short, Florentina tells the story of a young woman of the same name who goes through horrific atrocities committed by her father, and the men he sells her to. She is repeatedly raped and beaten. She has developed CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative condition of the brain, which – as we can see in the film – causes memory loss and severe headaches, and leads to a very slow death. Florentina does have a second narrative strand, which merges with the first around four hours into the film, but the film is nevertheless about Florentina, and her daughter Lolita, or Loleng (her nickname).
Cinematically, I find it significant that Diaz never shows the atrocities. Here and there he shows Florentina’s father being rough on her, but he shows neither the rapes nor the beatings. Everything happens off-screen. The viewer is therefore forced to listen to screams and cries of help. It is a hugely effective method of filmmaking in this case. The uncertainty of what is really happening behind the walls to Florentina is an excruciating pain for the viewer, who is taken on a very intimate journey with a woman who goes through hell.
There is also an interesting dichotomy between sound and silence in the film, with silence being predominant in her dream-like states, whenever she sees The Giants, which have a historical meaning. But if I start going into this, this entry will never find a worthy ending. So instead, I want to briefly point to the fact that Florentina is a metaphor. The film is not just about an individual. The young woman functions as an example for the whole of Philippine society. In a Q&A that followed the screening at the EIFF last year, Diaz spoke about the effects of colonialism and dictatorships on today’s society. He put Florentina as an individual on the same level as Philippine society. CTE is functions as a drastic and explicit illustration of what colonialism can do to nations.
The repeated maltreatment by Spanish, American, British and Japanese colonisers took its toll on the people. Diaz equated this with the repeated beatings Florentina suffers in the film. Indeed, “rape” has become a historical term these days. There is the rape of Austria (after the Nazis annexed the country). There is the rape of Jugoslawia, of Nanking in China, etc Rape no longer stands for the human act itself. It has become a metaphor for one country’s maltreatment in war of another country. It is a term, which has come to denote simply “power of one agent over another”, no matter in what form.
So if we think about the treatment of Florentina as an individual, we have to see this in the context of Philippine history (which is dark, I’ve read about it). It is a clever cinematic construct. It criticises predominantly Western nations for getting rid of Philippine culture, and often, Philippine dignity, without being very explicit about it. The film is told through a metaphor, and it is the only slow film I know of that does this in such a successful manner.