Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz has been a cinematic force of nature since 2008’s Melancholia and his latest, From What Is Before, is just as quietly important, as Tim Robey explains

The first-tier challenge in getting to grips with the grave, beautiful and patiently intense work of Filipino auteur Lav Diaz is simply one of duration.

His most widely seen film so far, 2013’s sorrowful crime saga Norte, The End of History, clocked in at 250 minutes, which still didn’t put critics off slotting it into their manic schedules at Cannes, and in many cases pronouncing it the best film there.

His follow up, From What Is Before, unfolds at an even more prodigious 338 minutes, and even this is a long way off his personal record – try 2008’s Venice prize-winner Melancholia (450 minutes) or 2004’s Evolution of a Filipino Family (a whopping 593 minutes).

Close to ten hours for a single feature might feel like a form of madness to contemplate watching in one go. But this is an age of online viewing, snack breaks and comfortable instalments, where binge-watching devotees think nothing of committing themselves to all 2,949 minutes of Breaking Bad, spread over a week or two, or the 5,340 minutes of Mad Men.

Like the peaceful island idyll of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, this place becomes a paradise lost, or at least scarred forever, by the muddy and invasive boots of the military

Diaz sets us steep challenges with his films, and however daunting they might seem, they are much more easily scaled with the help of the pause button. The only risk, thanks to the placid long takes he favours to capture a landscape and people dealing with seismic change, would be pausing in the middle of a pause.

The black-and-white From What Is Before opens with a deluge of rain, overcast hilltops and swaying trees. It’s set during the period from 1970 to 1972, in an unnamed coastal barrio, and nothing on screen either dislodges you from that time period or even specifically signals it.

Though the film’s main subject is the political upheaval of Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship and its ravages on village life, Diaz trains his camera, more often than not, on the indifference of an island to the human toil and crises played out upon it.

Unexplained events visit the film in the manner of an alien invasion, or a mysterious and worsening plague wrought by the Marcos regime.

Several cows are found hacked to death in a field, and because an old herdsman and his nephew were meant to be tending them, they lose their jobs. Three huts burn to the ground one night. And a man is found bleeding to death at a crossroads, with wounds on his neck.

The barrio community whispers about these crimes as if evil spirits were at work, or a cataclysm coming: this is before the martial law Marcos imposed with his infamous Proclamation No. 1081 in September 1972, which lasted for the best part of a decade.

Challenging: scenes in From What Is Before take time to unfold

The two most important characters are sisters, Itang (Hazel Orencio) and the severely disabled Joselina (Karenina Haniel), whose convulsions may be linked to the traditional faith-healing powers with which both sisters are associated.

The parish priest (Joel Saracho) prevents them from practising these, suggesting a stalemate in their country’s past between traditional values and Christian ones. And in the later stages of the film, Marcos’s soldiers arrive offering “protection”, which entails a curfew, veiled threats and what’s clearly felt as a fiery encroachment against the natural order.

Like the peaceful island idyll of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, this place becomes a paradise lost, or at least scarred forever, by the muddy and invasive boots of the military.

So much time is spent waiting when you watch a Diaz film – for a woman to cross a grassy ridge, or floating downriver in a boat – that his work has a rhythmically lulling tendency, and the more shocking moments can catch you unawares.

In Norte, the pivotal sequence was the murder of a moneylender, which happens just off screen, the camera lurking on a hallway while her assailant barges in. Here, there’s a rape scene, which is unsensationalised and all the more unsettling for playing out in real time, without close-ups or a heightened style of any kind.

From What Is Before announces itself as based on the memory of real events, but it feels like it’s tapping into a collective reverie about the past, explaining the psyche of a country. You don’t need any knowledge of Filipino history to grasp this: it’s a subject that’s felt in the film’s bones, not one being doled out as homework.

Since it was made, Diaz has moved on to a documentary called Storm Children: Book One, which adopts the same steady monochrome approach, with real-life characters salvaging what they can in the aftermath of the devastating Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

The continuity of his filmmaking is so strong that conventional boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, and even the lines of demarcation from one film to the next, all but vanish. It may arrive in hefty chunks rather than in a sleek HBO box set, but his portrait of a nation wracked is an epic in instalments, forging ever onwards, and with an outcome unknown.

• Now watch From What is Before on MUBI

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