“You cannot escape Tarkovksy. It’s in the subconscious. We’ve been watching Tarkovsky forever. He is our god. His praxis, his methodology, rubs off.” – Lav Diaz
The camera rarely moves in Lav Diaz’s films. He once said about his approach to filmmaking, “People move in and out of frames in life, I just choose the frame.” The requisite lengths of his films make us become intimately familiar with the characters. We become truly omniscient. In a sense, watching a Diaz film is very much like reading a piece of fiction like Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet or Rainer Maria Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It is omniscience in the most intimate sense. We come to understand characters not through any dramatic narrative turns or Aristotelian peripeteia. Diaz does not chase stories with fancy hooks, but allows life’s intimate moments to come into his personal cinematic frame. So it is no surprise that it took him 11 feature films (totaling more than 3,000 minutes in length) before he turned that frame on the issue of the creative process and what it means to be a filmmaker.
On its surface, Century of Birthing has two main stories–one of a filmmaker named Homer and his struggles to finish a film and that of a cult leader named Father Turbico who has a fanatical following of young women referred to as “virgins”. However, there is also the story of the film Homer is making. In it, a nun seeks a more intense experience of existing by asking an ex-con to have sex with her. And this story has its analogue in that of a misguided young photographer who tracks down Father Turbico’s virgins only to rape one of them purportedly to free her from the cult.
The film’s most iconic scene–done as a 17-minute long stationary take–may be when as Homer is getting ready to start another editing process, a female poet friend shows up and suddenly launches into a soliloquy that perfectly sums up his mental state: “The worries end up in a never-ending chain of concepts, to weave and make crooked discourses, to link logic, and to patch different philosophies. And he knows that his mind is being consumed by cries, that he hears in his dreams and when he awakes… The world is a world of sadness that cannot be endured by jokers like me, he said.” She stands outside Homer’s window, and the drapes over it are perched in the shape of a cathedral. And the rain pours, as it poured in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, The Mirror, Nostalghia, and The Sacrifice.
The film goes beyond chronicling the creative process and its similarity to the spiritual quest to raising the most fundamental ontological question. In a scene where Homer is being interviewed, he brings up Heidegger’s question about the nature of being. Homer and his interviewer eventually come to an agreement over self-conscious laughter, as the interviewer says, “You have just answered Heidegger’s question. Cinema…is being…” With the ending of his short story The Circular Ruins, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once challenged our ability to discern reality from dreams: “With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he also was an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him.” At the end of Century of Birthing, this audience also will wonder if they, too, are an illusion, if they could merely be characters in a filmed dream concocted by another consummate artist like Lav Diaz.