Ang Larawan begins this way: Bitoy Camacho (Sandino Martin), a young, bright man, makes his way down the historical streets of pre-war Intramuros and enters an old house. On his way up to the sala, he pauses and quietly admires the furnishings gathering dust in storage. This film is as flamboyant and loud as any musical, but it remembers to include such moments of stillness. Its story is populated by a full ensemble, but it starts small as it follows only young Bitoy, while he revisits the place of his childhood memories.
Ang Larawan is a proudly, defiantly nostalgic film. It is a period drama, one that is deliberately framed: the story is bookended by black-and-white footage, and it introduces color as a stage would open its curtains. The past that it presents is concerned less with authenticity than with theatricality.
The film adapts National Artist Nick Joaquin’s famous play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, and it is as straightforward an adaptation as possible, adorned but unaltered even as it was translated by Rolando Tinio (also a National Artist) into Filipino, and in collaboration with Ryan Cayabyab was transformed into a musical. It is not Bitoy’s story; he only introduces it. At the heart of Ang Larawan are the Marasigan sisters, Candida (Joanna Ampil) and Paula (Rachel Alejandro), unmarried and growing old, living in their house in old Manila with their esteemed but reclusive father Don Lorenzo (Leo Rialp). Here, on the last October before the outbreak of war, the sisters’ peaceful lives are disturbed as various personalities—family and friends and other less-noble characters—come visiting upon news that Don Marasigan, the artist and patriot, has picked up his brush again and completed his first painting in decades.
The Marasigan house that Bitoy visits is a far lonelier place than he remembers. Candida tells him that the tertulias that graced their home on Fridays, bringing Don Lorenzo’s compadres and their wives and children together—as Bitoy himself recalls—have ended. Nobody had been visiting them anymore, until news of the new Retrato spread across the country. But even when people started coming again, they did so not to pay respects, but to take their share of the new painting’s glory. Candida and Paula, raised in good, gracious manners, cannot help but be polite to whoever arrives, but familial tensions and personal discontents are inevitably stirred in the brewing commotion.
Ang Larawan is thoroughly of traditional sensibilities, almost to a fault, almost to invite accusations of lack of imagination. This film looks and feels precisely like how any Filipino reader of the play would expect it to look and feel like. Yet it seems that this approach, of dressing the women in baro’t saya, of situating the story in a house of capiz windows and tsokolate de batirol, is the only approach the film could have taken to capture the spirit of Joaquin’s Portrait. It is the most faithful translation of the writer’s articulate, baroque aesthetic.
And it fits the characters and conflict: Portrait—Ang Larawan—is the story of bourgeoisie crisis, full of privileged histrionics: the conflict is not for justice, but for pride; the question is not of survival, but of dignity. It is not to suggest that the writer or the filmmakers are out of touch with social realities, but they see a noble project where others would see vanity. We already have realist films aplenty; Ang Larawan is the rare indulgence, that allows us to seek the genuinely Filipino in the larger-than-life make-believe of a well-dressed few.
Furthermore, it is difficult to resist just such a grand mounting of a beloved play. The film boasts of an orchestral score that swells and swings as the characters break down in tears or burst into dance (as they sing, of course). Ang Larawan counts among its cast all the resonant names in Philippine theater: Ampil, Legaspi, Alejandro, Buencamino, and many more. It does lean heavily upon its actors, relying on their undeniable talent, perhaps to an excessive degree: the camera is fond of close-up shots of the actors, giving a smothering effect to an already-intimate story. As the creators pursued their theatrical vision, it feels like they had neglected a few aspects of the work as a film, a different art form with its own techniques and creative possibilities. Nevertheless, sheer talent does wonders: in some of the darker turns in the story, shutting the windows and dimming the lights are all the adjustments made to the set; the rest of the dramatic work is delivered by the actors with passion.
It is not all drama: there is comedy here, and even a hint of romance. It is only a bit unfortunate that the largest section left unadapted from the source material is a lengthy, comic discussion about the eponymous painting. Bitoy works at a newspaper, and in the original play he visits the Marasigans with a few colleagues who, at the sala, looking contemptuously at Don Lorenzo’s painting, engages in a mockingly intellectual discussion of the artwork and its politics. It is a self-conscious piece of dialogue seemingly targeted at would-be critics of the play, those who would dismiss Portrait as too old-fashioned, too traditional, too indulgent. But in Ang Larawan the omission is justifiable, since in storytelling terms it is indeed a digression, an intellectual meandering. What we are left with is a more streamlined, more focused tale.
And, while occupied with familial tension and mostly confined to the space of one ancestral house, it is a tale that simmers with the potential of history. Towards the end of the film, we see the glorious October procession of Our Lady of La Naval, juxtaposed with historical footage of the war that would soon destroy the old city with its churches and beloved houses. The last stand of the past: this is the spirit that the film portrays, ang diwang inilalarawan ng Larawan. In this film, the memory of tertulias wrestle with the advent of bodabil, the baro’t saya is confronted by Commonwealth sophistication, and the traditional makes a triumphant final salute before giving way to the modern.
At the end of the show, as the curtains close on this recollection of the past, there is a mournful call to keep remembering. Whenever we heed this call, we reimagine the past, but doing so risks tainting our very memories; we risk making them more theatrical than reality. Yet there is no other way, and the honor of the past compels us to do nothing less.
Further reading: “The painter is dead: Barthes, and Nick Joaquin’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino’”, regarding the various meanings of the painting at the center of the play.
Film still screen-captured from the official film trailer.