Another important Filipino filmmaker is gone, and in tribute to her, here's an article on one of my favorite of her films:
May Nagmamahal Sa Iyo
Starring: Lorna Tolentino, Stefano Mori, Jaclyn Jose, Ariel Rivera, Gina Pareno, Tom Taus
Written by: Ricky Lee and Shaira Mella Salvador
Directed by: Marilou Diaz-Abaya
I SAW this picture with a Japanese friend who didn't know Tagalog. We watched the first scene as Louella (Lorna Tolentino) gives up her child to a priest (Rolando Tinio, of all people!). A classic scene, done countless times, but you wouldn't know it watching Tolentino: her hair in a disarray, her eyes slightly wild, her hands clutch the infant helplessly, hopelessly, as she instructs the priest in a trembling voice on the proper care and feeding of her son. My friend didn't need a single word translated.
Seven years later Tolentino is a domestic helper in Hongkong. You have to give the producers credit for actually shooting in Hongkong; but you also give Marilou Diaz-Abaya credit for not allowing the Hongkong shots to look like a moment of Star Cinema spending. The sequence falls seamlessly into place and drives the story forward; it actually adds insight into Tolentino's character. She's taken her motherly love and poured it into her young charge--up to a point. When the time comes for her to go, the child is devastated; Tolentino leaves with hardly a backward look. You find yourself nodding yes, that's how I'd act in her place, and of how many local films can you truthfully say that?
Tolentino comes home to an embittered mother, Rosing (Gina Pareno), and a neglected boyfriend, Nestor (Ariel Rivera as--an honest policeman?). Her recent experience as babysitter has left her vaguely dissatisfied; she wants to find the child she gave away long ago. Her search leads her to Conrad (Stefano Mori), a dirty, disheveled urchin. Their eyes meet. Could this be her son?
I sat with bated breath, waiting for that fatal moment when the soap-opera plot slips on its frothy suds. It's a new form of suspense, uniquely Filipino, developed from years of watching promising local dramas that ultimately disappoint.
The moment never really happens. Like an unlikely swan the film flaps its wings once, twice, catches an oncoming wind, and soars; you're left in your seat with your face slowly turning blue.
An unlikely swan, indeed. You'd never guess it from Marilou Diaz-Abaya's previous film, Ipaglaban Mo, an exercise in feminist hysterics. Here she's cooler than she's ever been; her touch has never been more sure. You see it in her deft handling of the superb cast. She takes Ariel Rivera's wooden acting and brings it miraculously to life: an honest cop is unbelievable, but a cop as earnest and awkward as Rivera is funny and rather endearing. Who cares if he's fictional? You can hear the Rivera fans in the audience falling in love all over again with this subtly seductive illusion.
Claudine Barretto is unusually fine as Louella's young sister. It's a small role, but in a film like this there really are no small roles; each is given a life of his or her own. Gina Pareno as Tolentino's mother gives a gem of a performance. Like Louella, she's an abandoned mother, and she can't forgive her daughter for following in her footsteps. Pareno tortures Tolentino with tight-lipped, angry silences. When she has anything to say, the words come out swift and barbed; Pareno takes them and whips them across Tolentino's face.
Jacklyn Jose turns in a luminous performance as the housemaid who rescues a child (Tom Taus) from physical abuse. She manages to make her virtuous character not just believable, but moving, and for once her performance snaps into place as part of an ensemble, instead of sticking out in an acting vacuum. Taus plays the abused victim with horrific realism; when his bruised cheeks stretch into a tentative smile, you can't help but shudder.
Stefano Mori is everything you hope for in a child actor and almost never get. His Conrad is a rebel; dirty, spirited and profane. He'll punch a nun in the stomach, then charm her with a gap-toothed smile. What keeps his performance from being sickeningly cute is the fierce, hot core of anger you see in him. He's been abandoned by his mother and the world; now he wants--what? Revenge? A mother's love? The film's biggest flaw may be in not pushing this character to its limit; we might have ended up with the despairing cherubs of Shoeshine, or the angel-faced demons of Los Olvidados or Pixote. This reservation aside, Mori handles himself well--so well you want to see him in stronger roles.
Tolentino as Louella is passionate, confused, loving, torn. She never tries for easy dramatics; you cry long before she even sheds a tear (witness the scene when she gives up her son). Her intelligent, understated acting looks better and better with every movie she makes; this one could well be the performance of her life.
Kudos to the production crew: the quietly beautiful photography (by Ed Jacinto), the crisp, clean editing ( Jess Navarro and Manet Dayrit), the (for once) unobtrusive music (by Nonong Buencamino). As scriptwriter, Ricky Lee has never been stronger or more dramatic. Unusual for Lee, the script is also well-balanced and free of moral rhetoric--no one breaks into a speech in this picture, no one stands to deliver a sermon. The Hongkong scenes at the beginning and the ship full of children near the end, both big-budget production scenes, don't overwhelm the rest of the film, which remain focused on Louella and Conrad. You wonder how much of this, and of the remarkably believable dialogue, is the influence of Shaira Mella Salvador, who (as far as I know) is writing for the first time.
From the intensity of Brutal, through the realism of Moral, to the gothicism of Karnal, Diaz-Abaya has always been on the side of women, and it shows: the film has almost no significant male characters except for Nestor, who's thoughtful and passive. To this recurring theme she adds the subject of blood, the importance we give to it, to our actual relatives as opposed to friends and relatives we choose. Blood is a favorite Filipino obsession. At its extreme, this obsession leads to nepotism, racism, power dynasties--corruption in the name of blood. At its most extreme, it leads to feuds, battles, war: blood spilled in the name of blood. With this film, Diaz-Abaya suggests that the alternative--the son or mother you choose, the bond that two people form--can be as strong, if not stronger, than mere blood.
It's a measure of Lee, Salvador, and Diaz-Abaya's achievement that none of this heavy philosophizing weighs down the film. You don't really notice anything else: for minutes at a time, what's onscreen is life, real life, and you are under its spell. An enthralling film.
(First published in The Manila Chronicle, 2/3/96; reprinted in my book Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema)