While adding a few paragraphs to my chapter on Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), it occurred to me that for some slow films the characteristic of “little dialogue and predominant silence” is not exactly applicable. Lav’s films are all in the Slow Cinema canon, but Encantos does not exactly fit to the category of little dialogue. I noticed that while thinking about the films of Béla Tarr.
In Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012), Diaz uses the juxtaposition of sound and silence as an indicator of trauma. Florentina is repeatedly sold to and raped by men. Her mental capacities are declining. Slowly. Over the course of six hours. Silence plays an important role in the film. Not just absolute silence, as is the case in several scenes. I’m also speaking about the absence of dialogue. Florentina reveals her plight in monologues, but it is – seen over the film’s running time – rare. Besides, it is fragmented due to her suffering from CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain.
In Encantos, trauma is revealed by speech rather than through specific auditory or visual aesthetics. Diaz does use canted angles in many extreme long-shots of the post-apocalyptic scenery in Padang etc, but they’re overall not the main aesthetic he uses to transmit aspects of trauma. Trauma is revealed entirely through dialogue between characters. Just as in Florentina, there is little to no on-screen violence, so it has to come from somewhere else.
Tarr famously said that his films could be understand without dialogue. I still have this line in my head. It’s taken from an interview, which is on the DVD of The Man from London (2007), if I remember right. And it’s true. His films contain dialogue, sometimes very little, but the dialogues do not reveal something that is absolutely essential to comprehending the film. It works with quite a few other films. And then there are slow film directors, who cut the dialogue completely, as is the case with Michelangelo Frammartino’s La Quattro Volte.
The emphasis of slow films is traditionally on contemplation. If you have too much dialogue, which, given the geographical origins of the directors, most likely means a lot of subtitles, it disrupts the slow viewing process. Encantos is one of those films. If you don’t follow all the dialogues in detail, you will miss important parts of the film as everything is revealed by speech. I vaguely remember that there’s a lot in Century of Birthing, too, which is revealed only by dialogue and not through visuals.
Diaz puts emphasis on the viewer’s listening capacity. And his/her willingness to listen. His films are not contemplative in the usual sense. Stretched over eight hours, dialogue appears to be scarce, true. And yet if we don’t listen to Diaz’s films, we miss most of what he wants us to see. A lovely juxtaposition.