On the occasion of Rizal Day, and as part of the yearlong celebration of Gerardo De Leon's centennial, a reprint of an old article:
Can't touch this
Even with a perfect print, I can't imagine anyone saying De Leon's Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1961) is a perfect film. While the casting of the men is impeccable (Eddie Del Mar as Crisostomo Ibarra, Oscar Keesee, Jr. as Padre Damaso, the great Leopoldo Salcedo as Elias), the women (Edita Vital as Ibarra's beloved Maria Clara, Lina Carino as the hapless Sisa) seem to have been hired more for their pretty faces than their acting abilities.
Actually the film's true star is De Leon' style, virtually an encyclopedia of low-angled shots, striking deep focus compositions, dramatic lighting, on-camera effects, and precision cutting--the variety in turn complementing the collection of anecdotes, plot twists, and melodramatic confrontations that made up much of Rizal's novel. If the results are not perfectly satisfying, perhaps that's in part due to the fact that De Leon is a master of Gothic drama, and Noli a dark but essentially comic satire of Philippine society; only later, when the forces of oppression rise up triumphant does the film truly come into its own. Perfect marriage of material and filmmaking sensibility had to wait until El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster, 1962), when the ambivalently evil Simoun (Pancho Magallona, in what may be the greatest performance in Philippine cinema) plotted revenge against the all-powerful Spaniards.
Nevertheless--two boys, Crispin and Basilio, shiver like mice high up in a bell tower, where De Leon uses the claustrophobic space and enveloping darkness to suggest the shape and nature of the children's fears; when the tyrannical sacristan finally appears, De Leon momentarily wipes away the eyes' pupils, giving him the blank stare of a doll, a shark, a child's terror. When Basilio finally comes home, he learns that his long-missing, much feared father had come home before him, eaten his dinner, left; Basilio ignores his mother's news and immediately checks her for bruises (a lovely gesture that endears Basilio to us--not only is he caring, he's smart, too).
De Leon's realization of the famous scene where Sisa is arrested (famous partly because it's based on what happened to Rizal's own mother) is equally vivid. Sisa runs up the street to the camera in panic; cut to Basilio in the house, backing away; soldiers are approaching. He drops out a window, sprains his ankle, but manages to crawl away. His mother isn't as lucky; as the soldiers approach the camera, De Leon cuts to her stepping in from the side to stand in their way. She's force-marched across beautiful landscapes, past the church that was source of much of her troubles (she asks not to be humiliated before the townspeople; the soldiers order her to march two steps ahead--no more). At the station of the guardia civil she's marched past prostitutes and a hanging saddle (De Leon's not one to shy away from a sexually suggestive visual metaphor); the capitan angrily dismisses her. Sisa, running home, cries out for her two boys, both of which are now missing. She finds a torn shard of Basilio's shirt, and in one of the most beautiful shots in the film De Leon's camera gazes at her from below as she raises the fluttering piece of cloth up to the sun.
There's Ibarra and Maria Clara's party at the fisheries, where a crocodile is discovered inside the netting; a man dives in and Tarzan-fashion, wrestles with the creature. De Leon's cutting is fast and furious; there's so much splash and struggle you find yourself panicking along with the witnesses. Ibarra jumps in to help, and the sequence ends spectacularly, with men heaving on a rope and pulling out a live, roaring creature (the shot sells the sequence; seeing the monster in all its glory, you can't help but believe the two men were in mortal danger).
There's the attempt on Ibarra's life: Elias' profile as he catches wind of the plot; Ibarra's frightened glance at the cornerstone hanging fatefully above him; De Leon's thrilling yet coherent cutting of the chaos that ensues. There's Sisa--driven mad at last--urged to dance then whipped by the capitan's sexually deprived and sadistic wife, the whip like a tongue flicking about Sisa's body.
There's a shot midway through the film--Ibarra and Maria Clara walking down the street when they encounter a leper; Sisa standing beside the leper and pointing to the church tower above them; soldiers of the Guardia Civil riding up to drive the leper away--that's clearly a throwaway moment, one the viewer can easily miss, but the shot is colonial society crystallized in a single image, arguably the greatest in all of Philippine cinema. Standing at ground level, the bourgeoisie; low near the ground are derelict and outcast; towering above all--aloof and unperturbed--is the almighty Catholic Church's bell tower.
Finally there's the great phantasmagorial sequence of heroic Elias, confronted with one revelation too many, running across the novel's many landscapes with figures from his dead past (a woman prostate on the ground; a man's decayed and bloodied head in a cage; a girl floating on surf, knife buried in her bosom) bitterly accusing him of cowardice. Flawed in print and execution De Leon's Noli may be, still it stands as the definitive, most visually striking realization of Rizal's celebrated novel ever made.
(Portions of this post taken from my entry on the film found in Chris Fujiwara's Little Book of Movies)