Epic in scope, reach and length, Lav Diaz’s Evolution of a Filipino Family examines the fifteen years of martial law in the Philippines imposed by former President Ferdinand Marcos. At the centre of the movie is the Gallardo family, who eke out a marginal existence farming a dour strip of land. In their barrio, the imposition of martial law coincides with a wave of guerrilla activity and a rise in crime and general lawlessness. As their fortunes decline, the family begins to fall apart. One son, Ray, runs off following the rape and murder of his mother, the mentally challenged Gilda. Her brother, Kadyo, drifts into a life of crime and, after a harrowing term in prison, winds up living with low-lifes in Manila. On the whole, the women – led by nononsense grandmother Puring and her faith in tradition – fare somewhat better, remaining in the barrio.
Photographed in black and white and relying almost exclusively on natural sound (there is no score), Evolution was shot over an eight-year period. Throughout the movie, you feel the pull and power of history, so much so that, when the family finally acquires a radio and becomes addicted to a soap opera, the mere presence of the medium feels like an invasion from another planet, signalling the end of their way of life. Nature is actually the dominant presence in the film, with Diaz often using this imagery to comment on the vain, pointless actions of his characters, particularly when there’s politics or money involved. A battle between the Gallardos and the guerrillas, for instance, is juxtaposed with a shot of two spiders eating one another alive.
Of course, at the film’s centre is Diaz’s probing of the Filipino psyche and the wounds inflicted on it by the Marcos regime, which the filmmaker considers far more damaging than either the Spanish and American occupations or even the Japanese invasion during World War II; after all, Marcos was a homegrown tyrant. Moving and trenchant, at nine hours Evolution of a Filipino Family is quite simply one of the most extraordinary and ambitious films you will see this year.