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[Only IN Hollywood] Pinoys Soliman Cruz, Lav Diaz and Matthew Libatique triumph in Venice

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] Pinoys Soliman Cruz, Lav Diaz and Matthew Libatique triumph in Venice
The Filipino talents shine in their respective films at the festival's 79th edition

VENICE, ITALY – Filipino talents – actor Soliman Cruz, filmmaker Lav Diaz and cinematographer Matthew Libatique – triumphed in the 79th Venice International Film Festival with their respective films.

‘To the North’

Soliman, who has worked with several of the Philippines’ notable directors, including Lav, Brillante Mendoza, Erik Matti, and Raymond Red, stunned Venice festival goers when they watched the Romanian film, Mihai Mincan’s Spre Nord (To the North).

The actor, who sometimes goes by the screen name Sol Cruz and usually plays supporting roles, has the lead role, Joel, a Filipino sailor working on a cargo ship, in the thrilling European film.

In his director’s statement, Mihai wrote, “Spre Nord started from a radio documentary. A story that had happened in the spring of 1996, in the Atlantic Ocean. At the center of it was an ordinary man: Joel, a Filipino sailor.”

“One day, as he was on duty on the deck, sailing to the US, Joel discovered a Romanian stowaway. In a second, he had to make a life-changing decision. Turn in the young man, thus practically sending him to a cruel death?”

STAR. Soliman Cruz appears alongside Alexandre Nguyen in the Romanian film ‘To The North.’ Defilm

“Or follow his faith and heart and help the stowaway, endangering himself and his crew? At that moment, I knew this was the film I’ve always wanted to make. A story about moral choices, kindness, compromise, courage and fear. A film that could speak to people about their own lives.”

Soliman, playing a religious seaman, holds our attention throughout the dramatic thriller with his quiet intensity and riveting presence. Soliman and the Romanian stowaway (Nikolai Becker, just as good) he hides from the Taiwanese officers running the ship keep us engaged in the Pala Biennale screening we attended.

Soliman, whose credits include numerous TV series in Manila, reportedly broke into tears in reaction to the audience’s applause and cheers during the film’s earlier official screening as an Orizzonti (Horizons) entry. With many lines in Tagalog, To the North also features Filipino actors, led by Bart Guingona and Emmanuel Sto. Domingo, as the ship’s crew members. The entire cast, including Asian actors, is impressive.

‘The Whale’

Matthew, nicknamed Matty, has the distinction of not one but two high-profile entries in this year’s La Biennale. He earned two Oscar best cinematography nominations for Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan in 2019 and 2011, respectively.

In the main competition entry, the drama The Whale, Matthew works again with his friend and frequent collaborator, Darren. The DP captures Brendan Fraser’s terrific performance as a 600-pound English teacher recluse. Hong Chau and Sadie Sink costar.

In his The Whale review, Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The Whale is based on a stage play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the script, and the entire film takes place in Charlie’s (Brendan’s character) apartment, most of it unfolding in that seedy bookish living room.”

“Aronofsky doesn’t necessarily ‘open up’ the play but working with the great cinematographer Matthew Libatique, he doesn’t need to. Shot without flourishes, the movie has a plainspoken visual flow to it.”

At the film’s press conference attended by Darren, actors Brendan, Hong and Sadie and screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter, with Matthew seated in the front row, the director was asked about filming The Whale entirely in Brendan’s cramped apartment.

Darren answered, “I started this business with $20,000 and a dream to make my first film, Pi. I learned back then that your boundaries are actually not chains. They’re actually your gateway to freedom.”

“So as a filmmaker, as soon as you have anything limited, it’s really exciting. In Mother!, I was confined to a single home. I was like, all right. Let’s go for it and see what happens.”

“Not only to limit myself to a single apartment but to a character who wasn’t very mobile and couldn’t move that much. How do we make that exciting and cinematic?”

“So Matty and I, my DP Matthew Libatique, who is here, right there (points at him), we spent a lot of time about how to turn theater into cinema, which is the great challenge when you start with a play, even though it was turned into a screenplay by Sam.”

“But how to make that exciting and engaging for the audience? And for me, watching the rough cut, which is always one of the most difficult moments of any filmmaker’s life because there’s just so much work to continue to do on it.”

“Actually for me, in this case, it was a relief because I did not feel claustrophobic watching the film. That’s in large part because of the way Matty and I moved the camera but also because of the depth of Sam’s writing.”

“You’re constantly, throughout it, learning more and more about these characters and almost like a murder mystery, they slowly reveal themselves. Every scene, you get a little more and you start to put things together and your brain is just constantly firing and thinking.”

“So, I knew that the seed material of the play, when I saw it, could potentially give us that type of realm to keep the camera moving and to keep the audience interested.”

PRESS CONFERENCE. Actor Brendan Fraser and director Darren Aronofsky speak at a press conference for ‘The Whale’ at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. Ruben Nepales

We asked the actors about working with Matthew for the first time.

Brendan replied, “He can put a light anywhere, I learned, inside of a small room and tell the story of the emotional reality that’s happening in that room. When it’s turbulent in the scene, you’ll see the weather is hitting rain droplets and there are shadows on the ceiling as if tears.”

“Sorry, Matty. I was constantly knocking over his lamps with my walker because he found a way to create a reality which made that small internal space feel external in its emotional reality.”

“I know that as dynamic as that was, it was also quite simple to not be in the way and allow for me to see Hong’s beautiful face as clearly as I could and know that we’re in a piece of proper cinema that’s based on a work that was created for the stage.”

CINEMATOGRAPHER. Matthew Libatique attends the press conference for ‘The Whale’ at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Ruben Nepales

Hong shared, “I do want to say something about Matty. I was offered a role in one of those big popcorn movies and I said no to it. But I kept on kicking myself because Matty shot it. And that was the only reason I would have wanted to do it.”

“So, I’m so glad that I got to finally work with him on this movie. Getting to watch him and Darren in their partnership, it was so comforting as an actor because that relationship can sometimes be really fraught, surprisingly. And it wasn’t on this set.”

“Matty was just a very gentle presence. We always felt supported. I love working with Darren because he loves actors. He understands what we do. He was especially protective of Brendan and his energy.”

“And so that was really just a blessing to get to work with these people, especially after the pandemic lifted and we were able to get back and to work on a small film like this with a very intimate cast and having this quiet, monastic experience in the freezing temperatures in upstate New York.”

“I was very unsure about whether I wanted to get out of my little COVID bubble to come and do this movie because I just had a baby. I’m so glad that I did. It was a really wonderful experience.”

Brendan added, “Yeah, the relationship that Matty and Darren have is very special. One of my favorite memories is when Charlie becomes enraged with his students and he throws his computer.”

“It was my obligation to effectively be the camera operator that day with a little remote camera to show the body and then hurl all of this and the camera could see every single thing, save for Matty and Darren cackling, hiding behind the furniture, because they think it’s so hilarious that I’m breaking an expensive computer against the refrigerator.”

STANDING OVATION. Matthew Libatique (right) and Hong Chau at the world premiere of ‘The Whale’ at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Ruben Nepales

“We got it in the first take. But they’re like, we got another one. Let’s just do it again. I swear. I saw a couple of film students (Darren and Matty) again, just loving their job.”

Rapturous applause and cheers greeted the end of The Whale’s world premiere, with Brendan breaking into tears and visibly moving Matty and Hong.

‘Don’t Worry Darling’

Matthew goes from lensing the dark, claustrophobic, contemporary interiors in The Whale to the sunny, picture-perfect, wide-open 1950s California dessert in Olivia Wilde’s mystery thriller out-of-competition entry.

Anchored by Florence Pugh’s standout performance as a housewife who begins to suspect something’s wrong in the utopian community that her husband’s (Harry Styles) company, Victory, built, the movie also stars Chris Pine, Olivia and Gemma Chan.

The son of Filipino immigrants is also receiving praise for his DP work in Don’t Worry Darling. Independent’s Geoffrey Macnab wrote, “Don’t Worry Darling is beautifully shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (best known for his work on Darren Aronofsky’s films, including the director’s current Venice contender The Whale).”

Houston Chronicle’s Cary Darling praised, “Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Venom) and featuring an intriguing premise as well as a knockout performance from Florence Pugh (Midsommar, Little Women) who steals the show like a repo man at 5 am, Don’t Worry Darling works up a substantial amount of goodwill in its first half.”

Olivia talked about working with Matthew in the film’s press conference she attended with Harry, Gemma and Chris.

DON’T WORRY DARLING. Actors Harry Styles, Gemma Chan and Chris Pine, and director Olivia Wilde appear at a press conference for their film ‘Don’t Worry Darling.’ Ruben Nepales

“I am a huge fan of Matty Libatique’s,” the actress-director began. “We’ve worked together in different capacities. I met him when I was an actor and he was a DP. I just watched him in awe.”

“I thought, one day, if I ever get the chance to direct, I hope I get to work with Matty. He’s just so incredible. And we made a short film (Wake Up) together. Then I asked him to come on board.”

“And he created this world with me completely. We all felt we were in such good hands with Matty. Particularly for me as an actor in the film, as well as directing, he was my partner completely. And he did extraordinary work.”

“Of course, he also shot The Whale, which premiered last night. He’s incredibly prolific, and he’s just a wonderful artist. I’m just deeply honored that he’s on this film and that he will celebrate with us tonight.”

On the film’s bright Palm Springs look which Matthew captured but with a sinister foreboding, Olivia remarked, “I’ve always been really interested in the iconography of the 1950s and 1960s in America. We were so inspired by the architecture, art, film and music of that era. And it’s such a seductive era. We really just found it to be the perfect way to design the world of Victory.”

In its Venezia world premiere, Don’t Worry Darling got a standing ovation that lasted for several minutes

‘When the Waves Are Gone’

In his newest opus, When the Waves Are Gone (Kapag Wala Na Ang Mga Alon), Lav exposes Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war and its extrajudicial killings. The film stars John Lloyd Cruz, Ronnie Lazaro and Shamaine Buencamino.

In Dan Callahan’s The Wrap review headlined, “Lav Diaz Creates Another Haunting Portrait at His Own Pace,” the critic enthused, “From the first shot of When the Waves Are Gone, it is apparent that Diaz himself is a master when it comes to composing his frames, many of which are made to look like the characters are being trapped inside a long hallway that extends out into the far distance on a diagonal, even in exterior shots.”

DIRECTOR. Lav Diaz speaks at a press conference for his film ‘When the Waves are Gone’ at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. Ruben Nepales

In the press conference for the out-of-competition entry, graced by Lav, his producers Bianca Balbuena, Bradley Liew and Joaquim Sapinho, the moderator, Paolo Bertolin, asked the auteur: “…It feels like you’re trying to achieve something else rather than just beauty or perfection, which is something that sometimes directors are very much concerned with. What are you searching for, when you are fashioning your images and working with the actors? It feels to me that, paradoxically, there is something so intense in the imperfection of your films.”

Lav, whom we saw throughout the festival being congratulated by film lovers and fans, replied, “I don’t want to go through a process where you look for the clean things because you can’t find anything in clean places. You enter the quagmire because it’s there where you find so many things.”

“It’s the simple principle of just digging. You dig dirt and then you’ll find gold. You dig the hard stones and you find the diamond.”

“Why is life so dysfunctional? You don’t go for the functional. You go for the dysfunctions so that you can understand it. Yeah, it’s one way of attacking.”

“In cinema, it’s like that. If you want to make it clean, then you’re gone. For me, I want to make it dirty. I want to make it un-pure, if there’s such thing as pureness in cinema. There’s no such thing as pureness.”

“There’s only this vast universe of just understanding things. The mystery of life is like that. You keep searching.”

The producers discussed When the Waves Are Gone being Lav’s first international co-production (with France, Denmark and Portugal).

Bradley said, “What was special about it is that it was a very organic progression. It was never like, ‘We would need to spend money here and we need to do these things there.’ ”

“It’s more of people wanting to work with Lav, trying to bring the vision together and trying to find a different way of financing, rather than just the idea of we’ll find some rich person and put money into the film and let’s cross our fingers.”

“This was about people from different countries believing in the project, the film, the story, bringing it to their financing commissions in their own countries and then getting not just financial but also creative support for the project. It was a very organic way of going about it.”

Joaquim pointed out, “On our side, it was the reasons that Lav didn’t have co-productions before, the reasons that we love to work with him. He is unique, extraordinary. He does what he wants.”

“We wanted to be part of it. It’s a happy coincidence to be here in Venice because it’s like Tintoretto. As the others are doing, thinking, planning to do films, he makes the films.”

“So on our side, it was really what he hears, his ability to portray reality in a totally different way from other directors and the fact that he fights for it and cannot stop fighting for it. It’s the reason we love to work with him.”

COLLABORATORS. Director Lav Diaz (second from left) attends the press conference for ‘When the Waves Are Gone’ with moderator Paolo Bertolin, and producers Bradley Liew, Bianca Balbuena, and Joaquim Sapinho. Ruben Nepales

Bianca added, “In working with Lav in a few films, we have earned his trust and respect He was very happy to wait a little longer and be patient with this co-production structure.”

“Although he’s an auteur, he was very open to collaborating, and it was a perfect, creative spirit from different countries. Some people really label Lav cinema as free cinema, long cinema, contemplative cinema.”

“But ultimately, for me as a producer, I think his films are a cinema of resistance, especially in a time where fear is instilled among people. He gives perspectives that lead to a greater discourse.”

“I think that’s really what’s powerful about the cinema of Lav Diaz. I have always been a fan, even if I have worked with him a few times already.”

Lav and his producers acknowledged the standing ovation given to When the Waves Are Gone at its world premiere in Venice. –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.