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A legend lives

“Contra Mundum!” (Against the World!) is a catchphrase, almost a desperate plea, uttered in the course of the movie “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.” It is also the title of a monograph on the film restoration of this 50-year-old feature, as well as an apt commentary on the saga of the making and survival of the movie, which only a small number of Filipinos have seen even if it has graduated into iconic status, almost myth, in the intervening years.

“Portrait” is based on a play, serialized in a magazine, by National Artist Nick Joaquin. It tells the story of the Marasigan sisters Candida and Paula who live with their aging father in their crumbling ancestral home in Intramuros. Father and daughters are besieged not just by hard economic times and fading gentility but also by a world changing before their eyes. That world is embodied in their case by the women’s siblings Pepang and Manolo, who want to sell the house, confine their father in a hospital, distribute the sisters between them, and then sell or bequeath to their children the house’s contents.

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Foremost of the items found in the house is a painting, the aforementioned portrait, the last work created by noted artist Don Lorenzo Marasigan and meant as a gift to Candida and Paula. The portrait draws the covetous eyes of collectors and mercenaries, among them the Marasigans’ lone boarder Tony Javier, who has already found a buyer for the work and plots to pry the painting from the sisters’ hands and sell it to an American collector.

Joaquin himself called “Portrait” the play “an elegy in three scenes,” lamenting not just the dire straits of the Marasigan sisters but also the steady deterioration of the “Noble and Ever-loyal City” of Manila, about a year before the war laid it to waste, and the inexorable passing of a way of life.

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As originally written, says Angelo Lacuesta, who wrote and edited the monograph, “Portrait” would have lasted about four hours. Husband-and-wife Lamberto and Daisy Avellana, who would be named National Artists in the future, with Joaquin’s permission, edited the drama down to a more manageable two-and-a-half-hour stage version. It was then further cut to meet the demands of a radio performance.

By the standards of the day, “Portrait” the stage version was a huge hit, staged by the Barangay Theater Guild “more than 165 times to packed houses over a run of two years, making it the longest-running play at the time.” To this day, “Larawan,” the Filipino version of “Portrait,” continues to be a staple of local drama, and the news is that a musical version is soon to make the leap to film.

In the early 1960s, Manuel de Leon, son of producer Doña Sisang de Leon who presided over the LVN Studios, must have thought he had a good box-office bet in a film version of Joaquin’s play. Perhaps he was banking on support from the

“intelligentsia,” who had looked down their noses at Doña Sisang’s more pedestrian but very popular movies, even if they paid grudging respect to LVN’s “prestige projects” which had won a number of awards at foreign film festivals.

De Leon also wanted to make “Portrait” his “last hurrah,” having presided over the closure of LVN (it would continue as a postproduction facility for many years) whose fortunes would decline with the emergence of independent producers and changing sensibilities. Maybe he did not reckon with one fatal flaw: The play was written entirely in English (with a smattering of Spanish), and to make the movie, De Leon banked on the same team that had successfully staged it around the country. Lamberto Avellana, who had directed many commercially and artistically successful movies for LVN, was tapped to be the director, Daisy Avellana and Naty Crame-Rogers, who had essayed the roles of Candida and Paula on stage, would recreate the sisters on celluloid. Conrad Parham, an experienced stage and TV actor, portrayed the slimy Tony Javier, while versatile actor Vic Silayan was tapped to play Bitoy Camacho, the narrator who introduces and closes the movie, the son of an old family friend.

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Perhaps counting on the upper echelons of Manila society to support his film, De Leon, who produced the movie using his personal funds and a new production outfit called Diadem Films, launched “Portrait” in the glitzy Rizal Theater in Makati, with a regular run at the family-owned State Theater. He had hoped for at least a five-day or weeklong run to at least recoup his expenses, but the movie was pulled after a rumored three days.

It was withdrawn from commercial exhibition and, save for a few scenes, shown from time to time in documentaries (most notably the laughing-crying scene of Candida and Paula during a blackout) remained largely unseen by the Filipino public in the last 50 years.

To many of those at the premiere of the restored “Portrait,” then, it was very much a first look, an introduction, to a movie that had been much-talked about, written about, lamented and mourned. Would the restored “Portrait” live up to the hype and histrionics? Or would it prove to be a dud, an anachronistic embarrassment?

I was particularly worried about watching a movie in which Filipinos spoke entirely in English. (“What are you worried about?” asked a friend. “It’s like watching a Repertory play.”) Would I be turned off by the schwar-schwar accents, the grappling with idioms, the forced broad A’s?

I would like to report that those fears were baseless. Beyond the English, what came across was the passion of everyone involved, the excellent acting, and the dramatic black-and-white shots that shone clearly in this beautiful restored version of a classic we can be proud of.

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TAGS: ‘a portrait of the artist as filipino’, Cinema, column, nick joaquin, Rina Jimenez-David
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