Dagitab (2014): counter-romantic, poetic

A still of Dagitab (2014) showing actors Nonie Buencamino and Eula Valdez, embracing and laughing

This is a review of Dagitab, a film by Giancarlo Abrahan that competed in the New Breed section of the 2014 Cinemalayà independent film festival. It is a rather difficult film; of course what I present here is merely my personal experience of the work. I imagine the film easily yields to many different interpretations.

Official movie poster for Dagitab (2014) by Giancarlo Abrahan

Before dealing with what the film is about, I’d like to take note of the film’s style. It is partly defined by vague sequences: whatever visual clarity Dagitab possesses is counter-balanced by the subtlety of their meanings. The scenes do not always have a causal follow-up, nor do they always have a sensible precedent. The film’s last scene exemplifies this: we find the characters nonchalantly discussing their next plans, and these are plans that seem to utterly disregard the build-up of the last few scenes. I was left with the feeling that after all that had happened, I still didn’t know the characters. The incongruity is likely meant to be a subdued twist, a subtle surprise that is unfortunately difficult to make sense of. Delightfully though, Dagitab is complemented by its poetic quality. There is a striking shot in the middle of the film of one of the main characters where, after turning on the radio, he sits on his working chair, leans back and closes his eyes. The camera lingers on the scene. It was quiet, and yet it was brilliant as a characterization of this mysterious character. I never understood what was going on in his mind at that point, but never did I feel the urge to know. It was a moment meant to be taken without question, a poetic image to be enjoyed on its own.

A movie still of Dagitab (2014) showing actor Nonie Buencamino sitting on a chair and leaning back
Nonie Buencamino in Dagitab (2014). (Image from cinemalaya.org)

Dagitab revolves around a middle-aged married couple, both working at the University of the Philippines. (I’ve forgotten the character’s names, but they were competently and convincingly played by Nonie Buencamino and Eula Valdez.) I’d say that I’m writing about this film nine months after the first time I saw it solely for its merits as a work of art, but I’d be lying. I confess that my affinity for this film is partly explained by its connection to my alma mater, the State University. It figures prominently in both the film’s substance and context. (The writer-director graduated from the University’s Film Institute.) For instance, Dagitab’s opening scene is of a graduation ceremony presided by Valdez’s character, a professor. The solemnity of the event is disrupted when some of the graduates bursts out in protest of some social issue—it’s a UP commencement ‘tradition’ I experienced in my own graduation at the institution. Another one: the main characters’ home is a charming house in Area 2 of the Diliman campus. I recognized it because I’ve lived in that neighborhood myself for a few years.

As an aside, I venture that the inspiration for the film’s title (which means electricity, and which is officially translated in English as “Sparks”), is a popular campus story posted some time ago at the Facebook group “Overheard at UP.” Two lads were riding a jeep in the Los Baños campus, the story goes, when one of them said to the other, who was eating a sandwich, “Ano ba ‘yan, pare, ang baboy mo kumain!” (“What’s that, you’re being so messy!”)

He then proceeded to wipe the stray mayonnaise from his friend’s face. Shocked, his friend said, “Pare, naramdaman mo ‘yun?” (“Bro, did you feel that?”)

Oo, pare, sparks, diba?” (“Yes, sparks, isn’t it?”)

Gago! Anong sparks? Parang lumindol kako!” (“No, you moron! What sparks? There was an earthquake just now!”)

It’s a funny anecdote that is reflected in one of the film’s subplots. Though, Dagitab, in its essence, is a serious exploration of intertwining relationships. Prominently, it tells of romantic taboos, some of them worldly, others more mystical: affairs between men, between teacher and student, and between man and goddess. The first is that of a budding writer-student who finds himself, reluctantly, at the receiving end of a fellow workshop participant’s affections. The second is of the same young student who falls for his workshop mentor and creative writing professor (Valdez’s character), who also happens to be his mother’s close friend. The affair naturally inflicts a scandal upon the professor’s secure, academic world. The last is of Buencamino’s character, a researcher and former activist who conflates the subject of his decades-long research (an indigenous deity) with the spirit of his dead ex-girlfriend. In their youth they were activists, and she was lost when she joined the rebels and went up to the mountains.

The film plays upon the complications of these entanglements. The romances clash with non-romantic relationships such as that between tita and inaanak, and between former activist and old rebel, among others. Some conflicts are resolved amicably; others, with subtle violence.

Dagitab’s most profound discussion takes place in the theme of real versus unreal. The researcher’s enchantment with the deity-ghost is juxtaposed with his down-to-earth marriage to the literary professor. His longing for the mystical and the lost brings him on a trip to the mountains, and when he chances upon his object of desire, they make love. Meanwhile, back home, he converses with his wife as she scrubs his back in the shower—without affection nor any erotic implication. Once, when he wakes her up for breakfast, she goes straight to the toilet, leaves the door open and shits while he eats. They joke about it, we laugh at it, then we’re left with a sharp message about the nature of love.

A still of Dagitab (2014) showing actors Nonie Buencamino and Eula Valdez, embracing and laughing
Nonie Buencamino and Eula Valdez in Dagitab (2014) (Image from cinemalaya.org)

Dagitab echoes the real-unreal juxtaposition cinematically. The supposedly mystical love scene is portrayed with stark, awkward clarity. Yet, when the student frolicks with the professor at the beach, it’s a dreamlike sequence, a dim and dainty scene. Beyond love, and in line with the film’s deep connection with the academic tradition, Dagitab makes a comment about life in the university as opposed to life in the ‘real world’. Valdez’s character inappropriately joins some youth in a drinking game and, outclassed, gets drunk badly. His husband comes to fetch her, and on the way home he stops the car to let her vomit on the roadside. Here, in the middle of nowhere, in the dark of the night, he broods over his life’s work. We hear through Buencamino’s mouth the insecurities of someone who has lived his entire life in the academe. He talks about how his research project has taken too long, how his world is so secure, and how he has never really known the real world and faced real challenges. It’s a powerful sentiment for anyone who has experienced or contemplated such a life. And its power is only enhanced by the film’s motif of juxtaposing the real with the unreal, the legendary with the earthly.

Valdez’s character, being drunk, was unable to follow her husband’s somber reflections (another subtle juxtaposition). She remarks, “Basta, ang alam ko ikaw ang pinakamatalinong taong kilala ko.” (“What I know is that you’re the smartest person I know.”) It’s an earnest, tipsy compliment, but it only aggravates the somber husband’s sentiment.

Dagitab is a romantic film, ultimately, though it is not about ideal romances. It hints at and attempts to grasp what is grand: love, legends, and glorious pasts. Even if it never reaches the stage of revelation, it tantalizes—and we’re left with an impressive work of art.

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Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

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