Filipino director Lav Diaz doesn’t believe in doing things in half measures. His latest film, the sprawling black-and-white underclass epic, The Woman Who Left, clocks in at just a hair under four hours. If that sounds like a weighty time commitment, consider this: His previous film was eight. Needless to say, these are not movies for the fidgety or easily distracted. They are marathon tone poems—the so-called “pure cinema” practiced on this side of the Pacific by the likes of Terence Malick. But where Malick sets his gaze upward to the heavens, Diaz sets his at street level—to the dirty streets and back alleys where his country’s poor, forgotten people struggle to scrape their way to the next day.
The woman of the title is Horacia (the sad-eyed Charo Santos-Cancio), who we first meet in a women’s prison camp. She has spent the past 30 years behind its walls, jailed for a murder she did not commit. She’s unexpectedly released after one of her fellow prisoners—and closest friends behind bars—eventually confesses to the crime. It turns out that Horacia was set up by a jealous ex-boyfriend. When she’s released, Horacia returns to her home. Her husband has died. Her daughter (Marj Lorico), who was seven when she went to jail, is now nearly forty. Her son is missing, presumably sucked down into the country’s plague of homelessness or kidnapped. As she learns all of this news, you look at Horacia’s downcast eyes and wonder how much more can this one woman possibly take?
Horacia becomes something of a modern-day saint/avenging angel while looking for her son and possibly plotting revenge for her wrongful imprisonment. This former schoolteacher walks the streets and offers small kindnesses to the destitute and wretched, including an epileptic transgender prostitute (John Lloyd Cruz). Diaz presents his homeland as a place without either a safety net or compassion for its lost souls. It’s a country with no shortage of churches, but not enough mercy. The only succor comes from small acts of empathy. And for a while his mission to portray the ills of his society overwhelm the smaller, more personal story he’s trying to tell, especially in the film’s bloated middle section. But thanks to Diaz’s own cinematography (he wears nearly every technical hat on the film, but could have sharpened his scalpel in the editing room), there’s always something captivating to look at. His monochromatic compositions of sunlight and shadows have a gutter grace. The Woman Who Left may not be a movie for everyone, but if you allow yourself to settle into its leisurely tempo and marinate in its heroine’s journey, it can be a richly rewarding experience. B