People do not just turn into saints when they grow old, a character says halfway through Delia & Sammy. She says it to justify the coldness she displays towards her uncle and aunt-in-law, but it is also a concise expression of what the film depicts throughout its story. It challenges what our society teaches the youth—that we should respect the elderly without question.
At first blush, there seems to be no reason for us to deny the protagonists—the titular characters—our full sympathies. Delia, proudly and sharply portrayed by Rosemarie Gil, is a former actress who avoids public transportation, perhaps because she does not want to be seen mingling with the masses, or perhaps because she does not want people pitying her and her faded career. She has cancer, and learns she has not much time left to live. Her husband Sammy—a mostly hilarious but terrifying, and also heartbreaking, Jaime Fabregas—is a once-formidable disciplinarian, now chronically ill and forgetful. The first time we see him, he has just wet himself, and is scolded by Delia for ruining his pants.
Soon, however, we see that this couple is not as pitiable as their circumstances suggest—not that they demand sympathy. They are too proud for that. Sammy is often aloof, wide-eyed, and confused by his creeping dementia, but at the slightest glimpse of ladies—nurses and doctors at the hospital, a provocative woman at an inn, teenagers at a bus stop—he would revert to his creepy, teasing and womanizing ways, much to Delia’s chagrin. At other times, when something displeases him, he would snap back into his severe, disciplinarian self, smacking hapless strangers with his cane. That is the trichotomy of his personality: if he is not confused, he could only be creepy, or cruel.
Delia & Sammy reveals its characters in enticing snippets, in a careful build-up; it does not resort to direct exposition. In an early scene, Sammy, upon seeing who the doctor waiting for them is, abruptly turns around and quips: “Ayoko diyan, bakla ‘yan.” The remark is funny, but the homophobia is not explained, until some time later when Sammy casually alludes to a past in the military academy. No character ever tells in straightforward stories how Delia and Sammy came to hurt and estrange so many of their family and supposed friends, or why they are now so lonely and isolated. It is deft and engaging storytelling: we, the audience, are always catching-up, like the senile Sammy who is constantly trying to make sense of where he is and why he is there. During one lull, Sammy shares a wartime story about his guerilla comrades beheading a Jap soldier for revenge, and he casually jokes about cannibalizing the remains to solve their food shortage. We ponder the truthfulness of the story, and just how brutal, how hard he could have been as a person in his youth.
Delia, being the one of sounder mind, plays a larger role in the film’s present-day story. Because she does not want to commute, she approaches her car-owning neighbors with a big smile, asking for a ride out of the village. Filipinos normally grant such nice requests by the elderly, even putting on a polite smile in return, despite the inconvenience. Delia, however, is always met with a wary face, or with outright hostility. It turns out her requests are always a ruse: she says she has to bring Sammy to the hospital, but once they are seated in the back of the car—after squeezing aside a distracted teenager or two—she would shamelessly command her neighbor to drive them to this or that place that is anything but a hospital.
It is funny because it is familiar: we laugh at Delia uncomfortably, while she deploys the same deceptions we may have seen perpetrated by cunning senior citizens in real life, they who abuse society’s preferential treatment for their kind.
Delia and Sammy are not even loyal partners in crime. They hurt each other as much as they infuriate others. One night, Delia turns hysterical when she stumbles upon a stash of yellowed plane tickets and old love letters—Sammy’s memorabilia of the women he has conquered, a remembrance of joy for him and a pile of hatred for Delia. To add insult to injury, it was a collection that Sammy had promised her he had disposed of. Old age has put an end to his womanizing career, but the consequences are yet to be exhausted.
The next day, Delia meets the village’s newest security guard, Roger (portrayed by the always comic yet sincere Nico Antonio). Delia’s tricks no longer work on her neighbors, but the earnest Roger, the friendly neighborhood newbie, has yet to learn his lessons. He enters the story with a humble mission: his commanding officer assigns him the unenviable task of collecting Christmas donations from the residents. (He is the only one with a sense of duty, wearing his uniform properly, while the others lounge around in their undershirts, taking extended merienda breaks.)
Delia unleashes her awkward, over-the-top acting stunts upon Roger, whose willingness to be of service sends him on an impromptu road trip to Baguio with the elderly couple. He dusts off and revives their old, dirty-white, dilapidated Mercedes sedan, the symbol of every past sin and present fault that Sammy and Delia have committed and continue to commit against themselves and others.
Delia & Sammy thus alternates between funny and heartbreaking at an alarming, cardiac-arrest-inducing rate. At some point it starts to feel tiring, and the appeals to laughs or tears begin to produce diminishing returns—but that is when the film shifts in intent, unearthing yet another infuriating piece of personal history or disgusting character trait about Delia or Sammy, and from a chain of laughs and aches we are thrown into a cycle of outrage and contempt.
This is what makes the film more satisfying than the average tender story about elderly characters. Many such movies content themselves with just playing the contrast between innocent gags and sincere tear-jerkers; Delia & Sammy, in contrast, equips its characters with an exaggerated, cartoonish hostility from the outset, constantly conflicting with the other characters’ restraint and desire to be respectful. It adds such a tense aspect to the story’s atmosphere, that when the heartstring-tugging scenes inevitably come, we fall for it, even if most of those scenes actually feel unoriginal and almost too sentimental.
The traveling circus of emotions that Delia & Sammy evokes is also not to be mistaken for plot. This film is about Delia’s attempts to find a place for Sammy for when she is gone; their trip going up to Baguio is the journey towards the story’s climax. Before that trip, Delia briefly entertains the idea of entrusting Sammy to a nursing home. She is in fact on the verge of signing the papers when she changes her mind, after witnessing a particularly scandalous scene play out at the institution.
In that scene, there is an easy-to-miss moment of foreshadowing that demonstrates this film’s subtle attention to detail: when Delia looks at the forms, she complains about the requirement for listing at least three emergency contacts. Do you really need as many as three, she asks in passing. And we ask—are Delia and Sammy really that lonely and estranged, that they cannot list even just three other people to be called up when something happens to them? If they have no friends, where are their relatives at least? The film answers these questions in due time.
There are many details like this in Delia & Sammy, details initially introduced for laughs, that turn out to be foreshadowing for some dramatic development. Sammy’s initially inconsequential remark about the doctor being gay only heightens the irony of his later encounter with his nephew Jimbo—who is now Jessica, a trans woman. Similarly, there is irony in how strangers constantly fall for Delia’s clearly fake tricks, but that her relatives, the people she needs the most, refuse to believe her tears when they flow out of true despair, dismissing them as just another of her deplorable ploys.
The film’s ending strikes a somewhat redemptive note. It is funny that, by virtue of the story, we feel wary about accepting the film’s ending as is. The final scene is touching, but should we just smile and imagine a happy-ever-after for the characters, or should we be suspicious about the appeal to emotion and do a proper accounting of Delia and Sammy’s words and deeds? Do we really absolve them of their sins, when they have always seemed to be unwilling to repent?
Or should we, perhaps, accept that society has always been right? That, despite being the worst and the meanest, people in their sunset years deserve unquestioning respect and sympathy from everyone—by the sheer fact of their humanity, and because, as the film portrays, even if some people have inflicted much suffering upon others, it does not mean that they are incapable of feeling, nor that they no longer have any need of love and caring for themselves.
Film still taken from the film’s official Facebook page.