Viennale 2021: Sermons from the Stomach – Lav Diaz’s Historya ni Ha

Religious themes don’t expressly dominate but subtly adhere to Lav Diaz’s Historya ni Ha. The way the boundless, deep-focus images offer themselves to be inhabited by the pious protégés of a charismatic puritan invoke the idea that there is always enough space under God’s roof. A teenage boy who can’t sleep alone, a sprightly nun, an apprehensive sex worker and a water-loving carabao find shelter in the firm presence of Hernando, a ventriloquist and his puppet, Ha. Hernando retires, breaks his relationship with speech and decides to only communicate through his vivified companion. 

There is a populist appeal in Hernando’s artistry, the faith in emancipatory entertainment for a powerless audience but one that seems to be distant from the reality of his work. As a popular star, Hernando grew to experience performing mostly as a routine of pleasing and schmoozing with the corrupt and the heartless. It is suggested that he was involved in the crushed Huk movement, an anti-imperialist, communist uprising in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet, his quiet resentment is not political bitterness; in fact, he retains a belief in pedagogy and the force of exemplary behavior and well-meaning advice. Hernando’s reclusion from bodabil – the Philippine variation of vaudeville – is rather to halt the degrading self-exhibition on international tours and in luxurious ocean liners where his appreciation is the primitive laughter of drunken plutocrats. His return to the Philippines from the last barnstorming in Japan is marked by revelations that signify insecurity in the country’s future and his private life as well: president Ramón Magsaysay – a Messianistic figure in the national canon – dies in an air crash and Hernando’s fiancée marries a wealthy man to help her family. He sets out on a journey, passing through a landscape of constantly reshaping creeks and increasing mud. The mise-en-scène intensifies, lamps flicker, the sound falters, stray dogs enter the frame. Hernando wades in the menacing tempest, going after a modest and useful life, or just letting himself be absorbed by an internal dialogue about the thinker’s responsibility or the rain itself. Eventually he meets these fellow travelers in need who hope to get to an island full of gold. Taking the hand of a lady who tries to stay standing on high heels in the middle of sweeping flood and guarding a boy’s dreams are more urgent for Hernando than purging solitude. 

Sanctity and intellectual connotations feel both attached to him – he could write lyrical letters to his fiancée about how the dilemmas he discusses with and through Ha are mirrored Hermann Broch’s Der Tod des Vergil or how he feels attracted to the self-subjugation of the characters in Lev Tolstóy’s Voyna i mir

But Diaz’s form is much more sparing and classical than Broch’s and his protagonist appears much less of an ideal than Tolstóy’s ascetic aristocrats. 

Around Hernando’s enormous soul, there’s flesh and blood: we see him dirty and witty; we see him desire and hazard. 

With its kicking directness, traces of a vital, storming production, themes of traveling and gold, Historya ni Ha aligns well with Diaz’s work and there’s even a motific continuation from Lahi, hayop. Yet, his new film is often light and warm, revering the orientational skills of vagabonds, paying attention to the ceaselessly moving ears of a carabao and concluding with the relevance of education. Violence is also reduced – only in one moment of piercing stylistic intelligence, Diaz silences the film and shows barbarity in a discreet yet devastating montage. In the quiet, we can hear the atrocities from inside sharper than is bearable. 

In the end, Hernando becomes a teacher, a profession (or vocation) that was extensively looked at in this year’s Viennale. I’ve long struggled with the dominant (and unanimously positive) notion of education’s role in contemporary progressive discourse. The trust in social mobility easily forgets that even in the most helpful pedagogic environment, the concept’s success is dependent on talent and performance, virtues of a system that necessitates social mobility, which is beneficial for gifted individuals but leaves the existence of their original location within society untouched – thus it will be taken by someone new, for whom such ascent is impossible. 

Similarly to the other defining (and real-life) teacher in the festival’s selection, Dieter Bachmann from Maria Speth’s Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse, Hernando provides an alternative. Gold is not the solution, he says to the angelic teenager who wants to support his entire family from his adventure to the distant island. The objective of Hernando’s persistent, ritualistic incantation and teaching of – what I understood as – the alphabet isn’t to arm the children with tools for competition and prevalence. It’s laying the foundation of what can be learnt together, a worthwhile common knowledge, a set of references and values that holds people together and enables them to share experiences and imagine a future through similarly understood words. And for him, it’s coming back to life and speaking his own voice again, it’s the choice to be around people instead of getting lost in the woods.

A Butterfly and the Smiling Martyr

There’s a butterfly winging into the image in Vittorio De Sica’s La ciociara as Jean-Paul Belmondo and Sophia Loren are hiding behind the stone wall of a bridge. A German sidecar is racing towards them on the road, but they promptly fade into the shadow of the barrier. The butterfly doesn’t take the risk, it quickly changes direction and drifts away before the car appears. The butterfly doesn’t share the image with the military vehicle. A tender, heart-warming coincidence, coming and going with the wind, a coincidence that can only happen in cinema. Later, Belmondo and Loren get lucky again and survive a bombing; this time, the camera intentionally catches a ladybug climbing through the grass. The tranquillity of insects only draws our attention for brief seconds: the film is loud, robust and hopeless, depicting the last years of World War II in Italy through the story of a widowed mother, Cesira – played by the high-spirited and constantly grimacing Loren – and her daughter, Rosetta, who try to find shelter in Cesira’s native village after the bombing of Rome.

There, they meet Michele, a young man characterized by his burning faith in literature and the peasantry, his reverence for sincerity and the Bible and his unrelenting criticism of both his own community and the world he would never see. His dignity and moral concerns are not taken seriously by his environment, which regards his youthful temperament with impatience. His eyesight is so weak that when he accidentally sees Rosetta naked, Cesira comforts her daughter by saying that Michele can barely see anyway. He is played by Belmondo, who hadn’t interiorized his persona yet and was able to nuance Michele’s explosive, insecure and profusely kind movements and gestures. He stands with his back to Cesira, whom he secretly adores and looks far away while contemplating his past vocation of becoming a priest. Maybe it was indeed my vocation and that’s why I shouldn’t do it, Michelle adds. He is anxiously crumpling Rosetta’s history book that he took from her to make a speech about the ignorance of schools. When Cesira asks him about girls, he gets uncomfortable and painfully giggles. Two fascists turn up, they tell Michele about the arrest of Mussolini and threaten to kill him. He only smiles at them, standing in a truly priest-like posture. If it’s true, I can die happy. When a group of German soldiers take him to show them the quickest way through the mountains he also smiles. Everyone around him seems to understand what will follow.

Michele is neither a holy fool, nor a consequent ideologist. In his hasty arguments, overt generosity, his prudent reading from the Bible, his clumsy romantic attempts and faraway moments of staring at flowers and ladybugs, Michele incorporates that transitional state between a child and an adult, between self-imposed austerity and the desire to live. He doesn’t know when to change directions as routinely as the butterfly, but they’re similar in their delicacy.

Jean-Paul Belmondo became a little too cool, virile and muscular for Michele over the decades. Yet, with different motivations and in different clothes, he kept looking for the truth in idiosyncratic ways; he was even a priest once. The innocent smile had also altered over time but he continued to preserve his pride whenever he would walk towards death again.

Revelation

“What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,“ thought he, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky – the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. „How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran,“ thought Prince Andrew – „not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…”

Lev Tolstóy: Voyna i mir (translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude)

To the Marrow: Powidoki by Andrzej Wajda

Autonomy and resistance are characterized by vigour, drive and tension in many of Andrzej Wajda’s films. His actors shout, dance and rush. They have no knowledge of relief, no break from this intensity: dense humidity lies heavily on them. Every movement requires a concentrated will, and once set in motion, a halt makes it harder to get going again, like a red light that obstructs the runner. They are in spasm, pain, despair and ecstasy. Popiół i diament, Człowiek z marmuru and Danton, their leading actors, Zbigniew Cybulski, Krystyna Janda, Wojciech Pszoniak or Jerzy Radziwiłowicz exemplify this clash of energies that takes place in an environment too oppressed to fully explode. 

However, stripped of his Baroque pomp and feisty loudness, Wajda also filmed resistance in a different vein. Plain compositions, calibrated colours and the contrast of the above-described excess mark this form. 

Old, disappointed, displaced and disabled people oppose quietly. Let down by the revolution he had participated in, Władysław Strzemiński (Bogusław Linda plays the inert and sloven painter in his twilight) is portrayed as such a person in Wajda’s final feature film, Powidoki. Recounting the last years of the artist in Stalinist Poland, the film concentrates on the quick takeover of power in the university and cultural life, and Strzemiński’s peculiar relation to it. There’s a dual quality to the consistency of his understated contrarianism. The circumstances get more and more ruthless, and while he appears to have a sharp understanding of totalitarianism and knew in each decisive situation whether to obey or not, he acts as if he hadn’t anticipated what’s coming to him. The images that indicate everyday life outside of the artist’s milieu align with Illyés Gyula’s everlasting description of tyranny. 

“(…) For it is in all you intend,/In Your to-morrow it is at hand,/Before your thoughts it is aware,/In your every movement it is there;//As water cleaves the river-bed/You follow and form it; but instead/Of peering from that circle anew,/Out of the glass it looks at you,// In vain you try to escape its wrath:/Prisoner and jailer, you are both;/It works its own corrosive way/Into the taste of your tobacco,//Into the very clothes you wear –/It penetrates you to the marrow;/You detach your sense from it, only to find/ No other thought will come to your mind. (…)”

//Egy mondat a zsarnokságról/A Sentence on Tyranny, translation by Vernon Watkins//

On the other hand, Strzemiński doesn’t seem to experience this. Despite enjoying theatrical gestures to impress his students, he never acts out or makes a scene until he is pushed to the cliff – there is a strong discontinuity in his conduct. The few scenes in-between conflicts show a man absorbed by creation and the maintenance of his elemental needs. More and more space is taken away from him up until the terminal minutes of neglect and hunger, yet, with the less and less he has at his disposal, he preserves an inner order, as if the reduction of air had no impact on him. Then, he confronts the perpetrators without any sense of danger. He has no interest in revolting or even encouraging his students. If he is forced to adapt, he objects and walks off. When he witnesses the devastation of his paramount achievement, the Sala Neoplastyczna, the room that also displayed the works of Katarzyna Kobro (Strzemiński’s ex-wife), he is surprised and carries on. He is neither apathetic nor motivated. He is principled and rational. Unlike in Wajda’s more lively characters, he is not fearless or led by heroism and valour – Strzemiński simply cannot stand any interference. He is uncompromising about art-making and remains intact, as long as possible. Without the slightest concern of the reaction, he cuts into the red drapery hanging in front his window during a parade but exclusively because it stands in the way of light while he is working. Then his rationality manifests (over heroism) and Strzemiński makes the effort to undertake a job as sign-painter. 

The film eventually infers Illyés’ truth. 

“(…) Because, where tyranny is,/Everything is in vain,/Every creation, even this/Poem I sing turns vain, (…)”

Strzemiński may look irresponsible; indifferent to his daughter and his students and unwilling to use his intellect and strength to inspire or help others. This curious case-by-case mode of hard-headed morality, which refuses to acknowledge the stream of violations, only functions if he is detached. 

Interpretations differ whether the film’s indirect meaning refers more to Wajda’s own trauma from the dictatorship or to the contemporary, right-wing despotism in Poland. Considering the further prevalence of superficial, pseudo-progressive movements since the film’s release, the disappointed and failed avant-garde and revolutionary brings other autocrats to mind. 

Regardless, there is something universal in Wajda’s and Linda’s rendition of Strzemiński: beyond the ostentatious rebels, there are other practitioners of autonomy; moderate and thoughtful. Though Strzemiński didn’t want to teach anything but art, his students could conclude a useful political stance from his example: dare to know, dare to individually assess, dare to trust common sense. 

 

From Donostia to Pasaia: Colours

Further down the road, as one passes by the stonewall, a turnout emerges. Even more than the trust in hiking trails, the excitement of the contrasting landscapes and the ocean attracts one towards the left. Under dense foliage, a tight alley leads to two different viewpoints; above, there is a rich variety of greens, a palette that intercepts light, obstructing growing grass, thus below, mottled grey awaits.

The first of the two lookouts is marked by its robust framing. A fracture in the line of rocks breaks open the ridge and one can see water. Disparate distances and colours complicate the experience as the rough, yellow surface of rock and its closeness intrude, prompting awareness of one’s gaze. It’s difficult not to get lost in the excess. The scream of seagulls grows sinister and leaves no question regarding the subject of attention. 

The second station offers a clearer image, its focus comes in handy because there, it takes a step to end things. It’s reasonable to step back and look up; there are no frames here, just the wide horizon. 

The overarching greens, craterous yellows and clean blues are accompanied by other colours, playfully bowing in the breeze. 

All this is subject to change of course, even in the same season, depending on the weather and light. Without the unruly drawn cliff on the periphery, the perception of the water’s surface is undisturbed at first glance. Yet, even with less facets, the profusion of sights is impossible to engross. Each square metre of the ocean displays a new shade and each wave suggests different depth. I speculate the latter with particular fondness, hoping that one day an ascending whale will darken the water where now a seamount appears. These impressions accentuate how tranquility can be swept away. Blue turns into grey in an instance. At its most peculiar, the storm has already absorbed the sky in front of me, while there is still clarity and immaculate brightness behind. The object underneath it will be lit and emerge in incomparable sharpness. An ephemeral phenomenon to observe.

In any event, it’s good to know that not only we do the observing.

photos by Babos Anna & Petri Simon