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When Horacia Somorostro steps out of the correctional, Lav Diaz gifts us with a beautiful long shot of his heroine staring and standing still on a concrete bridge. It’s as if the director tells us how far Horacia has become disconnected with the outside world. It’s an establishing shot, and a few of this are used at the early parts of the movie, each time the protagonist arrives at a new place–the frame assymetrically balanced. It shows stasis, contemplation points. Horacia literally and psychologically temporarily immobile with her struggle, burdened with her bags and baggage. She is about to claim the justice she deserves for a frame-up for murder which resulted to thirty years of her life spent in jail. Her ex-boyfriend, Rodrigo Trinidad, was the mastermind. After a fellow inmate confesses that she was the one who committed the crime Horacia had been paying for, Horacia was released. Her freedom turns out somehow pointless though, being estranged to her daughter for about three decades, and returning, finding her son missing and her husband, dead. She needs to finish the things she has planned to do if she dreams of moving on.
The Woman Who Left is Diaz’s most austere work. Like his other films, the colors are bled into black and white. It is also bereft of musical score. When Horacia comes out of prison, the sound of horns and traffic strike her as possibly a little violent. The exchanges with other characters, the captivating tone of her voice being a natural raconteuse, and the sounds of news from the radio she is used to–they are the other sounds that we will encounter frequently, alternating with stretches of long silences as we gaze and focus on people, enlarging from or disappearing towards the station points of one-point perspective compositions. Sometimes a poem Horacia had written is recited. One central piece with lines that have rats, cockroaches, winds, corners and crevices presages a pre- or post-plague psychology, alluding to the string of pestilence in Exodus. But overall the story is uncomplicated. The location and set up are generally unadorned.
It’s painful and terrifying to plot to kill a former love, to execute revenge. Somehow, meeting characters who are marginalized and discriminated by society lightens the weight of Horacia’s burden, being better off or more stable in many ways than all of them: the hunchback balut vendor, the poor residents living beside the mansions of powerful families in town, the deranged Mameng, the troubled epileptic transwoman, Hollanda. Horacia helps them, empathizes with them. They unwittingly become accessories to her scheme.
No doubt that Horacia knows that what she’s planning to commit is immoral; hence, the countless times that she has to trail her prospective victim. It’s not really to be methodical about it, but because there is a clash within her. Lav Diaz in fact gives away proofs of her moral struggle: We see Horacia anguish over pointing a gun. We hear her say in her drunkenness that she’s thankful that Hollanda had arrived–or she had proceeded to kill Rodrigo that same day.
It’s also ironic that we see Horacia go to church but we don’t see her pray. We find her sleeping on the church pews. We find her inside the church closely listening to Mameng excitedly point to her where the ‘demons’ are seated when they attend mass. Diaz opting not to explicitly associate Horacia to a specific religious denomination is telling, especially for a character who would usually need a spiritual connection in her difficult times. The absence of subsequent acts of praying, from her earlier only scene in jail where she joins a group of inmates praying the rosary, suggests that Horacia had lost her religious faith. Religious icons ocassionally appear in the background, like a small picture of Christ on the wall, or an imposing Quiapo Church. But they do not actively affect or influence the character or the story. They carry little to no significance, except to show that as things, they exist.
Meanwhile in one short scene, we glimpse Rodrigo’s psyche when he confides to a priest. He proclaims his moral confusion, yet such struggle is tainted with arrogance and laziness. His seemingly innocent questions arrive as a philosophical joust with a priest, empty inquiries, not a realization of his errors or a sudden regrowth of conscience, but could be a mockery of the priest’s beliefs.
Part of the power of the film comes from this contrast between our heroine and villain, I think–this clash between humanity and society’s many evils as represented by Rodrigo. Add to that the dualities, the visual and verbal motifs, and the counterpoints which strengthen the truths that the movie wants to project. We also find as solidifying element the similarities of fates of many characters, in their chorus of cries for social justice.
There is an extreme spotlighted long shot of Hollanda dancing in the street at night, like a tiny ballerina on a music box. She spins, graceful even from a distance. Like the musical object, she resurrects the song in Horacia’s life. Briefly. In Horacia’s house. After Hollanda recovers from gang-rape. It feels like that signals a fresh start for both of them but then the song Sunrise, Sunset the two individuals sang gives us prescience projecting a future which is a mix of bitterness and triumph. Then Hollanda pays back her keeper’s generosity. Horacia eventually leaves Rodrigo’s town to search for her missing son. She will tread on unknown paths and spaces, trudging with a mind constricted by invented memories of what should’ve happened in the past three decades, also as if she’s accursed to return to the place where the movie started and for a long time she was kept. It’s as if she has never left.