Dagitab: a Rilkean Exposition (and an attempt at a review)

“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’/ hierarchies?” Thus opens Rilke’s well-known Duino Elegies, a product of years of intense bouts of depression and elation. It is said that Rilke immediately wrote these lines upon hearing a female voice “calling out to him” as he was walking along the coastline by the Duino Castle, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. It then seems fortuitous, none the more destinal, that a participating filmmaker from this year’s Cinemalaya could have also heard the same voice that passed through Rilke’e ears, or that he could have heard Rilke himself.

 

Giancarlo Abrahan’s Dagitab (Sparks) manages to respond to Rilke’s near-helpless cry with a direction worthy of placing itself among the angels’ hierarchies. The film portrays the story of a middle-aged couple – a poet and a researcher, both in the academe – who find themselves in their own attempts to break through the daily grind of their less-than-interesting cohabitation glimpses of solitude, at once enduring and transitory. I say “portray” rather than “tell” because I think this to be the crowning achievement of the film: it manages to show the intricacies and complexities of this seemingly-fruitless search for solitude without the didactic tendencies one usually finds in films of this type. This is not to say that this didactic tendency – embodied in monologues and soliloquies by the protagonists – is essentially bad; we find them to be also effective, as with Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, or it could stage the occasional breaking of the fourth wall, as with Nichols’ Wit. But Dagitab manages to push the story into deeper and more complex nuances we usually take for granted in our real-life relationships by showing these without just relying on dialogue. It occasionally treks into voice-overs, as with the magnificent shot of Issey (Eula Valdez) and Gab (Martin del Rosario) lying beside each other on the shore at night, with the residues of the waves repeatedly creeping beneath their skins, with the voice of Gab narrating the first few sentences of his short story “Intersections” at the background. We are, however, treated with a lot of shots where characters, maintaining their proximity with each other, don’t say anything, letting the silence speak through their clearly tense postures and glances. A lot of credit is due to how the shots were framed, maximizing the dramatic potential of bodily gestures with the camera work. We also see a lot of inspiration from Kieślowski’s camera magic, letting the colors push the story further. A telling example would be how the colors of the traffic lights were given literary significance in Gab’s “Intersections,” and how these colors occasionally pop up as the story progresses, suggesting not just the dominant emotions that these characters were going through, but also the direction of the narrative itself, as with Kieślowski’s Trois Couleurs trilogy.

 

With that being said, the story itself deserves a praise of its own. Portraying academics and researchers in film creates a potential for hifalutin discourse, not to mention pretentious plots that reek of bourgeois sentimentality and unfounded and/or imagined messianism. Dagitab manages to avoid these pitfalls by emphasizing on the dynamics of the relationships between the different characters of the film, but it was, admittedly, treading on thin ice the whole film. The second scene where Jimmy (Nonie Buencamino) talks to his guide about his research made my heart skip a beat, as I thought it was so near to falling into that hole. Granted that the concerns and issues were admittedly middle-class, it did not pretend to not be so in the first place anyway; the very setting of the film – UP Diliman, a hotbed for radical thinking – suggests that socio-political issues and personal lives were always in constant tension behind the scenes. The film, however, managed to avoid being swallowed by the rhetoric of these issues, while maintaining a critical distance with it: Jimmy’s research was precisely about a myth surrounding a woman to whom rebels hold a high regard to, and that this was beginning to creep into his daily life. The film’s most challenging parts, I believe, were the shots that did suggest some sort of literary allusion. While there were some scenes that did suggest something – we have at least two scenes where the characters were swatting flies and/or mosquitoes – it is undeniably difficult, if not impossible, to see through the meaning of these shots without background knowledge and appreciation of literature and the humanities. Thus, I would concur that this film was not for everyone, and that it was a thinking person’s film. Nonetheless, for the thinking person, a visual and literary treat awaits.

 

This brings me to my most awaited part of this short write-up; its arguably dominant Rilkean resonances. It is no accident that Rilke figures in so much in the narrative: images regularly employed by the poet figure in the narrative, such as flowers (a lot of his poems), a cat (“Panther”), the “void” (“das Offene” in a lot of his poems, most prominently in “The Eighth Elegy”); the book that Issey gives to Gab as a gift is a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. But the most glaring Rilkean influence has to be the main theme of the film: solitude. A case can be made that the film is all about this almost futile search for solitude, the necessary movement to interiority that most of the time frustrates, but from time to time makes the frustration worthwhile. This solitude is never about isolating oneself from the world and brooding on one’s suffering – Rilke, for instance, tells us that “the necessary thing is after all but this; solitude, great inner solitude. Going into oneself for hours meeting no one – this one must be able to attain.” What ceaselessly amazes me in this film is how this search for solitude is portrayed against the backdrop of a relationship; or more properly speaking, how this search for solitude is done only in the context of a relationship. Jimmy’s obsessive research estranges him from his wife, and Issey’s frustrations lead up to her own space for solitude, with the unlikeliest of companions.

 

To be sure, Dagitab was not the first film that has wonderfully executed portraying this search for solitude, as I have suggested above, but I think it stands out precisely because of its indebtedness to Rilke and Rilke’s own ideas on solitude. Towards the end of the Eighth Elegy Rilke says: “Who has twisted us around like this, so that/ no matter what we do, we are in the posture/ of someone going away? Just as, upon/ the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley/ one last time, he turns, stops, lingers –,/ so we live here, forever taking leave.” It is not that difficult to talk about solitude, much less the necessity of having that internal space. What Rilke offers is a vision of solitude that is, at the heart of it, transitory. True solitude, we are led to see, involves the acceptance that the profound joy and trembling that one attains in that spark of freedom that one finds in one’s interiority is, at the end of the day, fleeting, like the fireflies that populate the final scene of the film. But it is in solitude that one sees one’s life in transition: from the annoyance of flies to the beauty of fireflies, from red to green in the intersection and the only thing asked of you is to go, Jimmy’s loss of his glasses, thus, paradoxically, making everything clear (I sense an allusion to the Pauline letters to the Corinthians, already alluded to by Bergman’s first film in the Faith Trilogy), from man-made and man-started sources of light – sparks – that end up in smoke (at least three or four times, smoke enters an important frame), to the giving over to a light that does not come from oneself – fireflies.

 

Thus, a question is afforded to the viewer: what constitutes greater love, a life of companionship and “trying to tie loose ends,” or, in the words of Rilke, affording your partner, beyond control and calculation, a space “to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” It is easy to think of love and loving as a kind of spark – thus the double-edged meaning of the film’s title – but there is a more enduring spark: one that does not pretend that it won’t fade, and that it is fine. What counts is, in the words of our poet, that “two people protect each others’ solitudes,” and at the end of the day, come home to something new.

This interplay between solitude and its temporary nature is brought to its sublime heights in Dagitab, a film that at the end of the day, challenges its viewers, in their own fragmented lives and stories, again in the words of Rilke: “you must change your life.” As Gab tells us, there is only one way, and that is to go ahead.

 

It seems fitting, then, to end with words from our poet, which is always already the final word:

 

We need, in love, to practice only this

letting each other go. For holding on

comes easily; we do not need to learn it.

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