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Florentina Hubaldo, CTE: A Cartography of Anomie and Angst

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By Mike Rapatan

Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE probes into the harrowing and pitiful life of its eponymous character afflicted with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a debilitating condition that emerges years after an individual has experienced a series of physical assaults on his or her brain. The disease reportedly strikes professional athletes engaged in rough contact sports (e.g., boxing and wrestling) where during play, the exposed head is heavily battered. Typical symptoms of CTE range from depression to mental anguish and dementia.

In the case of Florentina (undauntingly portrayed by Hazel Orencio), her illness is not due to any sport. Her sickness is the result of her depraved father’s grave physical abuse. Every now and then, Florentina complains of throbbing and piercing headaches. She also talks to herself, states her name and her date and place of birth and recounts her father’s cruelty to her. Her despicable and burly father (listed in the credits as Father and played by Dante Perez) unrepentantly chains her to a bed and makes her available for anyone interested in paying for sex with her. The money he earns supports his alcoholism which in turns fuels his brutality and violence on Florentina and her grandfather, Ingkong (Brigido Tapales). Florentina attempts to escape on some occasions and implores Ingkong to aid her. But Ingkong also fears his son’s retribution. He provides no help at all. He turns a blind eye on Florentina’s multiple rape and desperate efforts to be free and tells her that they have nowhere else to go.

When Florentina manages to slip out into the woods near her home, she walks around glassy-eyed and lapses into a delusional encounter with gigantes. She imagines them as her savior and reaches out to touch them or hold their hands. She appears entranced, dances with them and recovers her childlike self. Diaz shows these scenes in total silence suggesting Florentina’s emotional autism that on one level discloses a crumbling mind but on another projects the relief and comfort she periodically yearns for. Her intermittent breaks from reality and wanderings from her house are fleeting for when her father locates her, she is jolted back into the harshness of her father’s barbarity and is callously dragged back to her bed.

In another part of the film, another story unfolds about two brothers searching for treasure. The brothers (Joel Ferrer as Manoling and Willy Fernandez as Juan) meet up with Hector (Noel Sto. Domingo) and recount to him their lamentable fate. Hoping for a better life, the brothers blinded by their own dreams for uncovering some hidden wealth feverishly dig but end up empty handed. When Manoling was busy digging, Juan would sometimes stray off and try to capture a gecko making a ruckus near the dirt pits. His search prompts Hector to inform him that his quest is impossible to do. Juan’s persistence annoys Manoling and they end up fighting each other. However, one day, Juan succeeds in catching the gecko much to Hector’s surprise.

The two stories may seem disparate. But Diaz reveals how Manoling and Juan’s dreams intersect with Florentina’s derangement. Manoling and Juan learn of Florentina and her daughter, Loleng, during their stay with Hector. After listening to Hector’s sordid story about Florentina’s woeful life, her arrival one night at his house with Loleng appealing for refuge, Hector’s offer to adopt them and the heartbreaking episode of Loleng’s death from tuberculosis, Juan sets the gecko free. Juan’s gesture of release signifies his acknowledgment of the pettiness of his obsession with the gecko and recognition of how pursuing a pesky reptile pales in comparison to Florentina’s incomprehensible tragedy.

For Diaz, both Florentina and the brothers struggle to take control of the Sisphyean lives they lead. In particular, Florentina’s plight is the latest case in Diaz’s oeuvre of individuals resolving a personal existential dilemma while afflicted by or seeking treatment for some form of psychological trauma (e.g., Serafin Geronimo in Ang Kriminal ng Barrio Concepcion, Juan Mijares in Batang West Side, the trio of Alberta Muñoz, Rina Abad and Julian Tomas in Melancholia and Benjamin Agusan in Death in the Land of Encantos). Unlike a number of social realist filmmakers led by the late Lino Brocka who expose the pernicious hypocrisy of public figures or social institutions charged with upholding the law, Diaz often subjects his investigation of social issues to a psychoanalytical-cum-philosophical framework that may appear apolitical. In this film, rather than pursue the question of how justice can be meted out to Florentina, Diaz through the character of Hector/Narrator constantly asks about the origin, nature and purpose of violence in the universe. Instead of conducting a critique of the structural forces that conspire to crush decent and honest individuals, Diaz engages in introspection where he interrogates the raison d’etre of hapless and exploited people like Florentina. Through this introspection, Diaz delves into the fractured psyche behind an individual’s travails.

In his narrative, he constructs a non-linear itinerary that feels iterative and exploratory returning every now and then to the muted image of Florentina mumbling and reaching out to the viewer. He charts his tale in isolated locales with deceptive pastoral beauty, ferreting out the heinous crimes closeted in far flung villages. In this six-hour work, Diaz then reprises the role he has enacted in other films, that of a cartographer of anomie and angst, of hidden horrors silently suffered by the nameless, dispossessed and abandoned.

As a result of this metaphysical and reflective orientation, Diaz’s mise-en-scene is dominated by the long take or the long shot. In Diaz’s films, distance and perspective serve together as an organizing principle for the staging and blocking of action. Whether the action is exhausting (such as in the scene where Florentina writhes in pain while trying to break free from her bondage) or meditative (like the shot where Florentina and Loleng sit motionless in a stream), Diaz frames the scene in full with a Zen-like stillness that effectively captures the density of his character’s inner turmoil. Like his past films, Diaz subtly demonstrates that distance and perspective have their own emotional intensity and at certain times, becomes more compelling and provocative than a close-up. Take for example key scenes done as long shots and long takes where Father with a waiting customer goes on drinking oblivious to Florentina’s screams as a man rapes her or the night shot where we see only a dimly lit house as we hear from afar Florentina’s crescendo of cries to her father to stop ruthlessly beating her. In these scenes, the events appear remote from the viewer yet the texture of Florentina’s predicament is palpably visceral and gut wrenching.

In a sense, the contemplative pace of the film takes the viewer away from indulging in sentiment or wallowing in pathos at Florentina’s misery. But on the other hand, this treatment can also be alienating. Distance can also exhibit a lack of engagement and the film goes on without inquiring into Father’s display of savage patriarchy. The repetitive scenes of Florentina’s aimless wandering also raise questions of Florentina’s agency and at times appear as a narrative or stylistic cul-de-sac. The closing shot of a disheveled and bloodied Florentina signals some initiative on her part but the measure of her self-determination is rendered ambiguous. Although there is no epiphany on Florentina’s state, the film leaves in the mind of the viewer a deeply compassionate portrait of her capacity for perseverance and survival.