How does the ‘greatest Filipino play’ illustrate our nation?
The reputation of Nick Joaquin’s 1951 play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, towers over the landscape of Philippine literature. Its achievements demand nothing but superlatives; on the theatrical poster of its 1965 film adaptation is this call to attention:
The film, the stars, the setting, the theme, the story, the director—all the things that make this the motion picture to see if a Filipino can go to the theaters only once in his lifetime!
This year (Nick Joaquin’s birth centennial) will see the release of another cinematic adaptation entitled Ang Larawan. At the end of the teaser trailer for the film is a less self-important, but nevertheless equally grand, assessment of the source material: “The greatest Filipino play, now on film.”
I’ve been seeing the novel Dekada ’70, by Lualhati Bautista, on National Bookstore’s Filipino shelves for as long as I can remember. That is the certain mark of a work’s membership in the literary canon, as far as the economics of required readings are concerned. But somehow, in all my years of schooling, I had evaded all the panitikan teachers who would include this novel in their syllabi. Either that, or I’m suffering a combination of faulty memory and a past fear of classic literature.
It happens that I’m currently atoning for my past disinterest in classics, and a friend lent me a copy of the progressive pocket-sized novel. (I imagined—framed—my friend as a concerned citizen discreetly sharing subversive readings to a fellow citizen, for enlightenment in these dark times.) I have no idea when, or if at all, I would ever have read this novel if not for this friend. Dekada ’70’s cover has intimidated me all these years, after all. Every time I would see its stark red, overtly political cover illustration, my mind’s interest-switch flips off. I am all for appreciating realist, social-political narratives on a medium like film, but I’m a slow reader, and I only have so much reading capacity to spare when it comes to grim literature.
I’m glad that I proved my own expectations wrong. Everyone mutters, don’t judge a book by its cover, but the reality is that for the majority of books we lay our eyes upon at the bookstore, we pre-screen them by sight. By their covers, that is. Certainly, we could read the synopsis, cross-check with reviews or recommendations, but before any of this can be accomplished, we would already have instinctively formed prejudices on a book by its face. The book design for Dekada ’70 belies the novel’s domestic tone: there are grim moments in this story, true, and the anxious climate of the titular era is the omnipresent spirit of the narrative, but the entire tale is depicted in such a welcoming, informal manner that the political becomes personal—what would otherwise have caused distant despair becomes a matter of intimate concern.
Like a forgettable vacation: the movie suffers from an uninspired premise and poor storytelling.
I Found My Heart in Santa Fe is a movie with an efficient title. All the information you need to set your expectations—on the film’s genre, tone, sensibilities—can be inferred from those choices of words.
It is also a film proud that it was independently produced, yet it has an overwhelmingly mainstream flavor. In aiming to please crowds, it refuses to strive for originality, even when its mode of production gives it all the freedom to do something different. The freshness of its setting is therefore lost in the familiarity of its tricks.
I Found My Heart in Santa Fe is a self-assured rom-com about a half-Filipino tourist, Viktor (Will Devaughn), falling in love with a morena islander, Jennifer (Roxanne Barcelo). In this film, there are provocative slow-motion shots of the leading man taking off his shirt, as well as of the leading lady emerging from the sea in a bikini. Jennifer has a support group of friends, with stock, cartoonish personalities, who have no discernible life of their own and exists in the story only to cheer our protagonist in her quest for love. Early in the film, people burst into dance, in the town and on the beach, to the tune of Roxanne’s catchy and pun-filled ‘Morena’. (“Mamahalin mo rin, mo rin, morena ‘ko…”) Later, when it is time to bring out the kilig, the film conjures another song by Roxanne, this time a yearning cover of ‘Morning, Noon and Night Time’.
None of these are bad elements, and for the most part the film pulls them off with technical skill. But neither are they memorable, and any viewer’s enjoyment (or at least tolerance) of this film hangs on acceptance of such tropes. They add nothing to a film that, from its conception, is already challenged with leaving a mark.
Bona Fajardo talks about the real reward of filmmaking, and other thoughts on Filipino cinema.
As the media conference for the film I Found My Heart in Santa Fe was wrapping up, we approached the director, Bona Fajardo, only to ask for a quick word. He noticed us and remarked, “O, ‘eto mga bagets,” and motioned us to sit down with him.
It was as if he sensed what we, the bagets, were curious about—his thoughts as on old-timer in the film industry. He’s been active since the 1990s, having served as art director for the landmark films Jose Rizal and Muro Ami, both by the late Marilou Diaz-Abaya. He has since aligned himself with the pioneers of independent, digital filmmaking in the country. At the 2002 Manila Film Festival, he won Best Production Design for Jon Red’s Utang ni Tatang. His own debut feature film, 2005’s Miss Pinoy, was Judy Ann Santos’ first indie. “Lagi kong sinasabi sa mga presscon, ‘Ah, hindi ako mainstream ah’,” he says, and laughs.
He witnessed first-hand the transition from celluloid to digital technology, but while it has democratized film production, he laments that no similar revolution has taken place for distribution. “Maraming mga filmmakers na nabigyan ng opportunity, pero ang malungkot doon, hindi naman nasakop ‘yong distribution, ‘yong venue, ‘yong pagpapalabas sa sine.”
Sa pagsasalin ng mga kuwento, ang mga banyagang kaligayahan at pasakit ay ganap naring nagiging atin.
Takaw-pansin ang makulay na pabalat ng Layag. Tila pino itong lambat na humuhuli sa madulas at malabnaw na atensiyon ng mga katulad kong mahilig luminga-linga sa bookstore. Nang makita ko kung tungkol saan ang aklat, hindi na ako nakatakas sa pang-aakit—madalian ko nang binili.
Paano ba naman, nagkataon na may kasalukuyan akong pagsisikap na magbasa ng mga akdang klasiko. Minsan hindi ko matiis ang pagbabasa ng ‘importanteng’ panitikan. Isang antolohiya ang Layag ng mga maiikling kuwento at salaysay ng mga sikat na Europeong manunulat, ng mga tulad nina Guy de Maupassant at Luigi Pirandello. Halos lahat ng mga awtor ay pinanganak noong gitna hanggang hulihan ng ika-19 na siglo; karamihan ng mga akdang kasali ay naglalarawan ng mundong Kanluran sa panahon ding iyon, at sa mga batang dekada ng ika-20 na siglo.
Sa totoo, akala ko dadagdag lang ang Layag sa tambak ng mga babasahing iniipon ko sa bahay, ngunit sinimulan ko agad at mabilis ko itong natapos. Hindi ko kasi maitanggi ang husay ng sari-saring estilo na itinatampok sa lipon ng mga kuwento. Iba-iba ang pakiramdam na dinudulot nito: may nakakatawa (Ang Pagligo sa Araw ni Janko Jesenský), may nakakasabik (Pagtakas Tungo sa Buhay na Walang Hanggan ni Stefan Zweig), may nakakapanlumo (Ang Hosier at Ang Anak Niyang Dalaga ni Steen Steensen Blicher), may nakakatakot (Ang Horla ni Guy de Maupassant) o nakakakilabot (Satan ni Ramón del Valle-Inclán). Ngunit, pinakamadalas, ang naiiwang pakiramdam ng mga kuwento ay pagkalumbay. Marahil ay dahil ito sa paksa, lugar at panahon na pinagmumulan ng mga kaganapan: ang romantikong Europa ng nakalipas na siglo. Sa pagsunod ko sa mga kaganapang inilalarawan ng mga salita, kusa na itong ipinipinta ng aking isip sa mapanglaw na mga kulay. Natural sa Layag ang taglay nitong nostalgia.