A son’s homage
As an adult and the one in charge of the post-production facilities of LVN, the movie studio founded by his grandmother Doña Sisang de Leon and nurtured by his father Manuel de Leon, film director Mike de Leon paid a visit to the warehouse where the reels of many of LVN’s movies are being kept. Opening the metal container of one such reel, De Leon said in his remarks at the premiere of the restored film “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” he was assailed by “the strong odor of vinegar,” a sign that the dye in the acetate had faded. When he unspooled the negatives, De Leon found it bereft of images. The movie stored in the delicate reels had disappeared.
That was when he decided to become even more involved in saving the remaining film stock that had been haphazardly stored, says De Leon. His late sister Oya had begun the effort, and Mike decided to join her in preserving as many LVN movies as they could, restoring those in danger of deterioration. When the Asian Film Archive in Singapore sent out a call for movie reels from all over Asia deemed worth storing and preserving, De Leon sent as many negatives as he could from the LVN archives, among them “Portrait.”
The impulse, I could only guess, stemmed not just from filial loyalty to preserve as much of the LVN legacy as possible, but also from his own artistic concerns, De Leon being an award-winning and respected movie maker himself.
Little do we, the public that loves movies, realize that film is a fragile, fleeting medium. Before digitization, the flickering images that enthralled us onscreen were stored in flammable, delicate material, subject to deterioration, sensitive to moisture and molds, and prone to being pillaged to make New Year torotot or horns.
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Angelo Lacuesta, whose father was himself a noted screenwriter, writes that “(film) restoration (is) special enough to require international funding and a very peculiar level of interest.”
That “peculiar interest” was certainly present when De Leon set out to have “Portrait” restored. It is, writes Lacuesta, “an extremely expensive and complicated process made possible by a circle of interested parties, willing institutions and technical experts.” With funding by the Film Development Council of the Philippines’ National Film Archive and De Leon himself, “Portrait” was put together from the original camera negative kept in the Asian Film Archive and a “first-generation” print kept in an archive in Berlin. The restoration work itself was carried out by L’Immagine Ritrovata, an Italian restoration laboratory. The same outfit also restored Manuel Conde’s “Genghis Khan” (to be featured in the coming Venice Bienniale), and has just finished work on Lino Brocka’s “Insiang.”
The restored “Portrait” is crisp and sharp, the sound liberated from the wobbling that often characterizes old films. Shot in black-and-white, “Portrait,” at the hands of Lamberto Avellana, is noir-ish, faces pale against dark and obscure backgrounds, shadows falling on scenes of domesticity, foreshadowing what?—death and destruction? obscurity? the fading away of a way of life?
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“Portrait” is superbly acted, and applause broke out spontaneously even as the famous “laughing-crying” scene of Candida (Daisy Avellana) and Paula (Naty Crame-Rogers) played out. Fearful that the utility company had cut off their electricity, the Marasigan sisters rush to shut the windows of their house so that the neighbors won’t find out that they were too poor even to pay for power. But looking out a window, they find the entire neighborhood dark. Only then do they remember it was the designated “practice blackout” night in preparation for an impending war.
Laughing at their folly, the sisters break out in hearty gales, only to descend into tears, realizing the true extent of their penury and shame. It is a scene made familiar by many replays, but also by many other scenes in movies and TV dramas which drew inspiration from it.
A surprise was Conrad Parham as the despicable but charming boarder Tony Javier. It would have been easy to play the roué broadly, to highlight his baser qualities. But Parham, who is a familiar name to people of my generation even if we can’t quite place his performances, imbues him with some sympathy, even humanity. Even as he conducts the seduction of Paula with subtle but oily smarminess, he still manages to win a measure of sympathy.
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Finally, a word about the “intelligentsia,” the folks who would in later times be called “burgis,” “elitista,” “sosyal.”
Themselves belonging to this class, both Manuel de Leon and Bert Avellana would have presumably banked on their friends and families to support the movie, one of De Leon’s “prestige projects.” It was not only made by people of their class, but spoke of the Manila society of old to which many “good” families traced their ancestry.
But the elite stayed away. Even if they patronized in droves English-language Hollywood movies, they shunned a Filipino film in English starring some of the best stage, movie and TV thespians of their generation. And if the educated class shunned the movie, more so did the “bakya crowd,” a term invented by Avellana himself, fondly at first, but later on in exasperation and despair.
Manuel de Leon, we are told, had counted on “Portrait” as his “last hurrah,” a movie he had made, I would suppose, to raise his family’s reputation from a maker of low-brow mass-market movies to one that produced movies of quality and significance.
I dare say the box-office fate of “Portrait” broke his heart, and I suppose his son’s herculean efforts to restore it could partly be a son’s homage to a father who loved the movies.
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