Pyroclastic Remnants: Desires and Breakages in Erik Matti’s “Vesuvius”

The devastation and damage brought about by any volcanic eruption plays through binaries – it may be quick or slow, destructive or constructive, foreseen or unexpected. Nevertheless, such events bring upon awe and fear at the same time: a spectator (or a victim) falls into a trance-like stare, wondering how such a natural occurrence transcends human amazement. What makes volcanic eruptions detrimental for any life form, aside from the violence of its explosion, is the pyroclastic flow. It is through the tangential and interweaving concepts and processes aligned with the science of pyroclastic flow that I intend to discuss some critical points in Erik Matti’s 2012 short film entitled “Vesuvius.”            

The word pyroclast is derived from two Greek words: πῦρ (pyr), meaning “fire,” and κλαστός (klastos), meaning “broken in pieces.” Pyroclastic flows, also known as pyroclastic density currents or pyroclastic clouds, are “fast-moving currents of hot gas and volcanic matter (collectively known as tephra) that move away from a volcano about 100 km/h (62 mph) on average but are capable of reaching speeds up to 700 km/h (430 mph).”[1] The combination of movement, matter, and method are the conceptual provisions that I want to utilize in operationalizing fire (as desire/s) and rupture (as breakages) to anchor my critique of the “silent terror” film. The lack of dialogues in the film renders a deeper reading of mise-en-scène[2] and this is precisely the methodology I plan to practice in this paper. Through a formalistic close-reading and inter/counter-textual analysis, I propose that Matti’s “Vesuvius” is a (master)piece that tries to locate the ‘self’ as it attempts to navigate through the intricacies of desire, distraction, destruction, and in the final bout, a more defined awareness of how violence becomes a potent tool for such an end. Ultimately, it is through the destruction of the self where one finds the completeness that mortality befits elusive.       

Fire as an element has always been attributed to passion and carnal desire. In the first scene, we see the perfunctory process of a day-to-day means of survival: a nameless, timid man (Gio Alvarez) delivering packed lunch for employees who are also functioning mechanically. The gaze of Alvarez pierces through his shadowed face in 1:43; one that reflects sustained desire for the woman. It is interesting to note how the next scene immediately jumps to a place where they both meet again: in a marketplace. We see Alvarez moving towards the woman in the meat section. The side of the frame is filled with processed meat products. I specifically draw attention to a nativized version of sausage: longganisa. The processed delicacy is made of ground meat coming from various parts of a pig. I will go back to this point a bit later in discussing the livelihood of Alvarez. At 1:58, it becomes apparent that the desire of Alvarez, still unclear at this point, is unreciprocated. What instantly follows is Alvarez amidst severed body parts of a pig: ribs, feet, innards, and liver. In the first two minutes of the film we see how the interplay of passion and desire is foregrounded while the subtlety of mechanization continues in the backdrop.

I propose that such desire is possibly ‘carnal’ in nature because of the attributed meat in the background. The word carnal is derived from the Latin word carnālis (root word, carō), meaning “fleshly, or of the flesh.” Today, we understand the word as that which describes or relates to the physical, especially sexual appetites; worldly or earthly; of or relating to the body or flesh.[3] What is important to note about the earthly and worldly flesh of humans is that it is something temporal. Likewise, carnal desires, once satisfied, have the most tendency to disappear. As Alvarez retires to his home, he then proceeds to his second role: to be a grandson nursing his ailing grandmother. In 2:40, we see an indistinguishable mound of what seems like vomit or feces, which is after all, processed food/meat that the body ingested. What is interesting about this shot is how it is juxtaposed with the naked corporal body of Christ (in the crucifix) from a rosary held by the grandmother – three stages of the flesh: what we aspire to be, what we are, and what we are bound to become.

The next scene focuses more on the nature of the carnal. Alvarez is preparing the food he needs to deliver the next day. He begins by dipping the chicken in boiling water to remove excess feathers. The chicken meat needs to be soaked in boiling water in order to tenderize it; thus, making it edible. As he waits for the chicken to get tender, the scene where the fly enters his body through his ear happens. It is then that the plaguing of Alvarez’s mind begins. From 3:28 – 3:38, we see, again, ground meat combined with egg (including the shell), cigarette, and phlegm, which will then be served the next day to the customers of Alvarez. It is interesting to note how processed flesh, soon to be ingested, came from flesh that has been defiled.  

Consistent with the defiling of flesh, two concepts now intersect: mechanization and the corpus (body). Immediately at 3:39, we see Alvarez scrubbing the back of his grandmother to the point of bleeding. Through Alvarez’s gaze, we see how perfunctory his actions are. It is only when the grandmother feels that her flesh is pierced by the scouring that Alvarez snaps back and sees the blood – no other way to symbolize the corpus. The image reminds me of the scourging of Christ, performed mechanically by Roman soldiers. In a sense, we see how the initial destruction of the outside (including the surrounding environs) begins with the despoiling of the inside.

The next form of desire that I want to tackle is that of the otherworldly or of the divine. There is a kind of longing, even yearning, when one becomes chosen as a conduit of the worldly and the heavenly/celestial. Apparitions of the Virgin Mary have always been controversial. Such occasions and declarations of apparitions, whether approved or disapproved by the Vatican stirs curiosity rather than faith. An apparition is a “specific kind of vision in which a person or being not normally within the visionary’s perceptual range appears to that person, not in a world apart as in a dream, but as part of the environment, without apparent connection to verifiable visual stimuli.”[4] In the first scene of apparition, Alvarez is enthralled by the magnificence and brilliance of the Lady. Upon seeing the Lady, garbed in crimson and gold, he falls down to his knees. As tears flow down his cheeks, he prays in reverence, eager to hear what and why the Lady appeared to him. Inaudible and faint whispers are then heard in the background and we see Alvarez the next day entering a house, waiting there the whole day for the woman he desires. This resembles the desire of Alvarez to follow the celestial and divine apparition that he experiences. There is an awareness that this is something special; hence, he takes advantage of such an occurrence. According to Zimdars-Swartz, “up until about the seventeenth century, most reported apparitions happened when the individual was alone, or at least no one else was aware of its occurrence.”[5] It has become something privatized and individualized, rather than a communal sharing of event.

In 5:49-5:51, the time lapses from the morning until early evening. This is interesting because according to Orsi, an apparition is a “conjunction of transcendence and temporality where the transcendent breaks into time.”[6] In a way, Alvarez loses awareness of time and space, thus making the apparition something legitimate. The different forms of desire now flow inside Alvarez, waiting and wanting to erupt as soon as his chosen woman arrives. Inconspicuously, Alvarez follows the woman upstairs and interestingly, at 6:25, the scene pauses where the framed image of Christ is substituted by that of Alvarez. Moreover, he is amongst the different figures (figurines) of the blessed Virgin Mary. He submits to these different desires and defiles a flesh that is not his: he rapes and kills the woman, his object of desire. It is interesting to note that at 6:54, the image of the Lady again reappears, giving Alvarez a nod of approval. Through this moment of lucid interval, he realizes what he is doing and smashes the body of the woman using a ceramic idol of Virgin Mary. The scene ends with Alvarez washing away the blood, as if in a traumatic and tragic stupor.

Alvarez’s eruption, ultimately ends as more and more, he destroys women that surround him. As more flies plague him, the final apparition of the Lady begins and gives him instructions. At 7:57, he proceeds to the room of his grandmother, followed closely by the Lady, as if giving instructions on what he should do. But here, we see the lower half of the Lady as that of a goat’s, giving us a rather stark image that she is the Devil in disguise. In a way this is consistent with the workings of how women have been demonized throughout history by a rather patriarchal society – it was Eve that tempted Adam, it was Cleopatra who used her sexuality for power, it was Mary Magdalene who was supposedly the harlot, and now, it is the Virgin Mary who was used by the Devil to give false instructions. Throughout history, the image of the woman has always been portrayed as manipulative. It is in this film that the manipulation, penultimately leads to another’s destruction. At 8:06, flanked by three images of the Virgin Mary, Alvarez stares at his struggling grandmother, and at 8:25, the film ends with a smirk that renders the audience clueless and at the same time, engulfed with the knowledge of what transpires next.                                

The pyroclastic flows of volcanic eruptions are deeply seeded, miles and miles underneath the earth. In a way, we can see how the human psyche, including belief systems, operate from within and reflected and physicalized through actions. A dormant volcano, silent and latent, is still a functioning and ‘active’ volcano ready to erupt. Small eruptions are breakages which are necessary to release pressure that is building up from inside the earth’s core. I infer that Alvarez’s experience with the apparition of the Lady/Devil began with desires which are deeply rooted from within. The destruction of the self comes first before the destruction of the environment. Alvarez’s plaguing is established first before he plagues the women that surrounds him. The conduit of the volcano is the first part that is demolished when the magma reservoir erupts, through the volcano’s throat and out of the crater. The obliteration of nearby environs comes next. The city of Pompeii was eradicated and annihilated from the maps of ancient Italy because of the pressure that built inside Vesuvius.

Now that we are discussing the literal Vesuvius, I want to present another point of contention that is also possibly a means of breakage and rupture. It is interesting to note that in our own country, we had a similar narrative – that of Pinatubo. The cataclysmic eruption of Pinatubo in 1991 was the “second-largest volcanic eruption of this century, and by far the largest eruption to affect a densely populated area. The eruption produced high-speed avalanches of hot ash and gas, giant mudflows, and a cloud of volcanic ash hundreds of miles across. The impacts of the eruption continue to this day.”[7] For me, Pinatubo is something indigenous and native to us Filipinos. What was the impetus of choosing Vesuvius, almost the same eruptive history and chronicle, over Pinatubo? In a sense, it wants to draw how the religion that corrupted and destroyed the innermost sanctum of the self comes from a Western framework. Religion in the country is plagued with mere idolatry and fanaticism to a point that one question: where is this all rooted from? It mirrors a dangerous rapture brought about by a colonization through religion. What is different, in my opinion, is that the rapture of Pinatubo produced something elegant and beautiful – an imagined community that was able to save 5,000 and more lives, and the beauty that now remains; its crater. The film, then, shows that a colonial control of religion welcomes no good end.  

The contrasts that littered the film makes for an effective aftershock. The scoring of syncopated background music, the silences and noises, the pauses and dynamism, the darkness and light, all contributed to this silent terror. But what is the real terror? Is it the enchantment and enthrallment to such enigmatic moments? Is it the specter of that which cannot be explained, let alone be realized? Therefore, what is beyond the corpus? What is that which is outside the body? The eruption of something within will definitely be captured by an external manifestation. In the end, it is the body alone that decays and will leave little to no remnants. It is the explosion that will be remembered throughout history, and history is as savage and ruthless as its moments.  

[1] Michael Branney and Peter Kokelaar, Pyroclastic Density Currents and the Sedimentation of Ignimbrites (London: The Geological Society Publishing House, 2002), 143.  
[2] According to David Cook in his book A History of Narrative Film, it is a French term that means “placing on stage.” It is the arrangement of everything that appears in the framing – actors, lighting, décor, props, costumes. The frame and camerawork are also considered part of the mise-en-scène of a movie.
[3]  Diccionario de la Lengua Española, Vigésima Tercera Edición (Madrid: Real Academia Española, 2014).
[4] Sandra Zimdars-Swartz, Encountering Mary: From La Salette to Medjugorje (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 4.
[5] Ibid., 5.
[6] Robert Orsi, “Abundant History: Marian Apparitions as Alternative Mdoernity,” in Moved by Mary: The Power of Pilgrimage in the Modern World (England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2009), 215.
[7] Chris Newhall, James Hendley II, and Peter Stauffer, “The Cataclysmic 1991 Eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Philippines,” in United States Geological Survey Fact Sheet 113-97.

As a researcher, Juan Miguel Leandro Quizon specializes in comparative Southeast Asian cultural studies. He received his MA in Literary and Cultural Studies from the Ateneo de Manila University. He is currently an Assistant Professorial Lecturer under the Literature Department at De La Salle University – Manila where he is also finishing his PhD in Literature. He was a Research Fellow at the Asia Graduate Student Fellowship under the Asia Research Institute – National University of Singapore in 2015.