The films of Lav Diaz often seem to take place in a shadowy world beholden to no specific era, a nation where dejection and suffering exist more as existential conditions than circumstantial byproducts. The Woman Who Left, however, provides a pointed timestamp when an overheard radio address cites the recent deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa amid discussions of ongoing rapes, kidnappings, and other street violence in the Philippines under President Fidel V. Ramos—all of which place the film in the summer of 1997. It doesn’t take much to ascertain the symbolic significance of the chosen epoch: Diaz, who has a weakness for schematic binaries, is juxtaposing the escalation of meaningless violence against the corrosion of hope, with the radio show implicitly suggesting that as chaos reigns, faith dies.
It’s certainly a valid artistic point, and an especially urgent one for Diaz given the uptick in extrajudicial murders under current Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte, but it’s one that the solemn auteur, in characteristic fashion, spends half an eternity elaborating. At nearly four hours, The Woman Who Left technically qualifies as “short” within Diaz’s remarkable catalogue of marathon-length, largely ensemble-driven features, but its compressed narrative focus actually makes it feel equally colossal. Culled loosely from Leo Tolstoy’s short story “God Sees the Truth, But Waits,” the film devotes its time to the tale of Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio), a middle-aged woman who, shortly after the film begins, is being relieved of a prison sentence that she’s spent three decades wrongfully serving. What follows is the sustained stupor of societal reintegration, a shell-shocked process for Horacia composed of both hesitant attempts at familial reunion and a pursuit of vengeance toward the man largely responsible for the crime that imprisoned her.
These twin missions, however, gradually recede from the foreground in Diaz’s digressive telling, which sidesteps expected routes to catharsis in favor of dwelling on the detours along Horacia’s meandering path. In early scenes at the rural penitentiary, Horacia is shown to be something of a compulsive altruist, tending to the unwell under the surveillance of heavily armed guards, and that penchant for selfless nurturing in the face of dire circumstances only continues in the clammy, rubbage-strewn back alleys of small Filipino towns. Nearly everyone she comes across is under extreme duress, be it economic, psychological, or physical (and in one case all three), and in each situation she proves a persevering listener and impromptu clinician. In fact, the sanctification of this woman gets so repetitive that her potential complexity as a heroine is shortchanged. While Diaz is working overtime to erect Mother Philippines, his Horacia shrinks to little more than a cipher—the resolute, anchoring presence of veteran actress Santos-Concio notwithstanding.
Having demarcated his world cleanly into abject cruelty, haunted victimhood, and pure saintliness, Diaz eases into The Woman Who Left’s primary plot around the two-hour mark when a trans woman, Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), on the brink of death after a brutal beating, collapses her way through Horacia’s front door. The scenes that follow, which feature Horacia patiently fielding Hollanda’s torrents of self-loathing, healing her open wounds, and talking her down from a cliff, represent the tender highpoint of the film, and yet they’re also dramatically inert, functioning transparently as allegory for a wounded nation. That the eventual resolution of this thread implies transference of violence from one outlet to another hints at the director’s pained and pessimistic assessment of the country’s past and present.
Diaz’s long-take, chiaroscuro style excels at capturing the grubby texture and atmosphere of ghostly estrangement that permeates the Philippines’s forsaken working-class quarters. A documentary-like pivot in the final hour that finds Diaz temporarily departing from Horacia to observe the trash pickers and stray animals of Manila is the film’s most potent passage, the episode in which the smothering dark shadows and pockets of harsh fluorescent street lights most directly correspond to a void on screen. What the style is less well suited to is dramatizing the soul-bearing commiseration that dominates the film’s narrative. It’s often difficult to discern whether or not it’s even Horacia providing soft-spoken counsel in pitch darkness a dozen feet from the camera for minutes on end, and the total omission of close-ups starts to feel like overly rigid mannerism during the scenes with Hollanda. Well-meaning as it all is, The Woman Who Left suffers by resembling arty, didactic bloat when it most begs for a more sophisticated dramatic touch.