MMFF’s one good film
If you haven’t yet, haul yourself off to the nearest theater that is (still) showing “Ang Larawan.” It is to me just about the only film worth watching in this year’s edition of the Metro Manila Film Festival — unlike, I must say, last year when we were confronted with a host of choices of new, daring, refreshing films.
Anyway, back to “Ang Larawan.” So heavy was the hype that I was half-afraid I’d be disappointed, that the movie would fall under the weight of our expectations. To be sure, the musical has a weighty provenance: an original stage play by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, a Filipino translation and libretto by National Artist for Theater and Literature Rolando Tinio, and music by should-be National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab. Get the drift? Loy Arcenas, whose work I was unfamiliar with but of whom good things had been said, directed the movie. And it stars two stage figures: Joanna Ampil and Rachel Alejandro, who are backstopped by a company of the country’s finest performers. Rather heavy expectations, indeed.
I was glad to be proven wrong. The movie lives up to all the hype, being an entertaining, emotionally involving, visually enthralling, historically significant work of art. And the music and humor (yes, there is humor!) serve to lighten the proceedings in crucial parts. There were reports that in some screenings, the audience spontaneously applauded at the close of the film. I did applaud, albeit tentatively, since I was struggling to get out of the La-Z-Boy lounger in the theater where my daughter and I watched. It seems the all-powerful theater owners decided to market “Ang Larawan” to the upscale audience who could afford the more expensive venues, although I guess this means depriving the less-moneyed movie-watchers of the experience of this one good film in MMFF 2017. Don’t they deserve better?
So where do we start singing the praises of “Ang Larawan”?
Let me begin with the light — the warm, golden, shimmering light that suffuses much of the film. In this Arcenas departs dramatically from the first movie of Joaquin’s original “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.” Director Lamberto Avellana (a National Artist himself), filming in black and white, chose to present the drama in virtual silhouette, highlighting the characters against a dark background and limning the mood of gloom and looming disaster (the play is set in the final months before World War II broke out) that prevails over the movie.
There are, to be sure, “dark” moments in “Ang Larawan,” which Arcenas shoots against the dim background of street lamps and gleaming wooden floors. But the most memorable moments take place amid the fading splendor of the Marasigan mansion, bathed in the tropical sunlight of Manila afternoons.
The house is itself a character in the movie: dark halls and a salon filled with ornate furniture, capiz windows that allow the glow of the day outside to seep in, the gleam of candlelight in the final procession of Our Lady of La Naval.
Indeed, “Ang Larawan” is an elegy to the past, a past that was obliterated by bombs and mortar fire, but also by “modernism” and the shifting values of a new generation.
The biggest surprise and revelation of the film is Ampil, who carries much of the dramatic weight and gravitas. But Alejandro, who plays Paula, the sister knuckling under the natural authority of Candida, does come up with a startling revelation of character, a woman in the throes of transition, from mousy spinster to feisty fighter.
Joaquin tried to contrast the champions of tradition: the sisters Candida and Paula, their father Lorenzo the Magnificent whose painting is both a tribute and rebuke, the friends who gather for a final tertulia, against the modernists: the older Marasigan brother and sister who want to sell the old house for their own interests, the wife and hangers-on of the family friend who gave up his poetry for politics and power. But in truth they were—and would be—all victims of events beyond their control. But in celebrating their memory, we are left all the richer and prouder.
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