It seems that with each subsequent film, Filipino director Brilliante Mendoza’s signature concern, the economic dictates of contemporary society, particularly among the lower classes, is subjected to a less and less stringent analysis. In 2008’s Serbis, Mendoza brilliantly used a dilapidated porn theater to launch a complex consideration of the various forms of monetary exchange at the lower end of the economic food chain. In his follow-up, Kinatay, the director took the earlier film’s capitalism-as-prostitution equation to its logical endpoint, offering a sickening and perhaps ill-advised scene of graphic dismemberment to drive home his argument.
Lola, by contrast, feels like a retrenchment, a deliberate scaling back from both the earlier films’ lurid detailing and their thematic complexities. Lacking the bravura set pieces of Kinatay and the bubbling sense of life overflowing and sophisticated economic critique of Serbis, Mendoza’s latest offering feels surprisingly inert, a thin narrative structured around a thuddingly obvious thesis.
In Lola’s downtrodden Manila setting, everything revolves around money, a point established in the opening scene in which an elderly woman purchases a candle from a street vendor and continued throughout the film in ways both obvious (characters go begging for alms) and semi-subtle (an unwatched television set airs a game show titled Credit or Debit). In conditions of extreme monetary deprivation, Mendoza suggests, even murder becomes a question of economics, its moral concerns a luxury for people who don’t have to worry about money. Unfolding as a materialist consideration of the consequences of a fatal stabbing, Lola follows a pair of elderly woman (one the grandmother of the victim, the other the grandmother of the suspect) as they wend their way around Manila trying to raise money for the burial and the trial respectively, before the two come together to reach a financial settlement that allows the charges to be dropped altogether.
Mendoza’s films are marked by their nose-to-the-ground aesthetic, rendering electric the turbulent vicissitudes of urban life through DP Odyssey Flores’s brilliant handheld camerawork and a noisy sound design, a foregrounding of the film’s materiality that mirrors the director’s materialist view of the world. While less dynamic than its predecessors, Lola is no exception. The film contains a number of passages as impressive as any in the talented director’s growing oeuvre, notably an opening sequence in which the victim’s grandmother and a young relative brave the wind and rain to plant a candle in the crumbling urban corner where her grandson was killed. In Lola’s grayscale world, water is the key element; much of the film unfolds in a blinding rainstorm, while several of the characters live in riverside shanties. Mendoza and Flores turn the liquid element into a thing of misty beauty, crafting the film’s aesthetic zenith out of a shimmering funeral procession that slowly drifts along the city’s central waterway.
But, for Mendoza, technique has never felt so empty before. There’s a subdued pathos in watching the two elderly woman living their lives of quiet desperation, a little less quietly and a little more desperate as the film progresses, but the camera’s tracking of their repeated efforts to raise small amounts of money yields diminishing dramatic and thematic returns. There’s also an unnecessarily miserablist tendency at play, as when one of the elderly woman, unable to use the bathroom at the courthouse, pisses herself, an uncomfortable voyeurism that Mendoza acknowledges in a rare bit of self-critique in which a couple of boorish documentarians take pleasure in filming the poverty they see in the Filipino countryside, but which is no less uncomfortable for the acknowledgement.
Above all, Lola finds its director at a creative impasse. Having taken a certain line of inquiry as far as it can go (some would say too far) with Kinatay, he seems overly tentative here, holding on to his signature themes and aesthetic, but unsure exactly in what direction to take them. With all the talent in the world and an obviously keen imagination, we can surely expect Mendoza to push past this temporary deadlock. It’ll be a matter of no small anticipation to see where he goes next.
Lola will play on April 22, 23, and 24 as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.