Diablo throws us for a loop with an opening scene that depicts a devil possession in a mining camp in the highlands of Nueva Vizcaya. This is a red herring, a play on our expectations as to the earthly manifestations of the devil, a play on our expectations when it comes to the traditions of horror. But this is no conventional horror. This may not be a horror film at all. If the prologue says anything, it is that dark forces do exist, in the chambers of cheerless caves up in the mountains, as well as in the chambers of the heart in our own living breasts – where we don’t dare to look, where they are least expected.
Then we find ourselves in the huge, half empty house of Nanay Lusing, a mysterious matriarch who seems to be a master of her solitude. She is a reserved and intrepid woman who hardly makes a peep when an earthquake shakes her house. She is a widow and has five sons, all of whom have left home but who come to visit once in a long while. There is the miner, there is the soldier, there is the inheritance-seeking never-do-well, there is the farmer, there is the Lamplighter, whose emulation of Jesus throws us for another loop. He comes in the night and scales Nanay Lusing’s home as though it were to battle a monolith of the devil. Again, director Mes de Guzman seems to be pulling our legs, and humorously preparing his meditations on the conflict of good and evil.
The devil, in truth, does not come in the form of cloven hooves, forked tails and horns. The devil may very well be our own living flesh, our own spawn, our battle with loneliness, our battle with solitude. Nanay Lusing at first seems an impregnable wall: all the “devil” can do is stand in silhouette in the shadows, another de Guzman joke. As long as she can hold on to the few things that keep her sane, however seemingly little, she is free of the devil. She is an impregnable wall who cannot be brought down by rumors about herself, the neglect by her sons. She insists that she can fend for herself. Instead, she befriends street waifs, feeds them, and takes them into her home.
Some of the most telling scenes on the ineptitude of the devil are made clear by the return of Nanay Lusing’s money-grubbing son, full of schemes and full of cunning and wiles. He will stop at nothing to get his way, he may even send her own mother down the river. If anything, however, the scenes involving this son demonstrate how the devil gets discomfited and thwarted, how the principle of goodness almost makes easy fun of it. Look for the sequences full of risible magic realism, on the power of holy palm wreaths, and how they are supposed to ward off the devil.
But de Guzman may be simply wearing the ill-fitting mask of humor. Like the deadpan faces in a Kaurismaki picture, the humor here can be dark and wry. As far as I can tell, this could very well be dedicated to the predestined loneliness of all mothers. I see my own mother here. I see his own mother here: I’ve heard about her delicate condition nowadays. When life starts to go haywire at the end, when the nature of life is overturned, the devil may very well be there to waylay. When Nanay Lusing yelps at the death of her radio’s batteries – a signal of how the cumulative force of human tragedies has finally hit her – de Guzman has taken an abstract of the devil’s impending triumph and has given it a concrete expression.