A Love Story
Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God) starts on an ominous note: artillery and fire; corpses swept up by waves onto a beach; war and destruction. A narrator tells us that the three years during the Second World War when the Japanese occupied the country were "three years when there was no God."
The story proper begins 'in media res,' in the middle of the action. Crispin (Bembol Roco) is at the town grade school looking for Rosario (Nora Aunor). He finds her in a little hut in the schoolyard, shaded by trees. Crispin wants to say goodbye--the Japanese are coming and he is joining the underground resistance.
The moment is important; in the few minutes they have together we need to know that Crispin and Rosario care for each other deeply, that Rosario is desolate at seeing him go. Writer-director Mario O'Hara handles the scene with restraint: there are no histrionics, no desperate declarations of eternal fealty.
Rosario is hurt and distant, Crispin gentle even when he understands that Rosario is beyond consolation. It's Crispin's understanding that shows the depth of the relationship: they know each other so well they're inside each other's heads. One senses instinctively what the other is feeling, and (a nice touch) this intimacy is less a source of pleasure than of acute pain.
The next few scenes are transitory: how Rosario and her family are abandoned by their terrified neighbors; how the Japanese steal their rice and pigs and chickens; how they are reduced to eating roasted sweet potato for dinner. When Crispin comes again for supplies and rest he is a blooded rebel, with friends. He tells Rosario in graphic detail what it feels like to kill a man. Rosario, disturbed, prays that God take care of Crispin--even at the expense of her own safety.
Enter Masugi (Christopher De Leon) and his doctor friend Francis (Peque Gallaga). Masugi's a half-breed soldier--part Japanese, part Filipino; Francis is a Spanish mestizo. Masugi is lost and tired; he demands directions, and something alcoholic to drink. Rosario, angry at Masugi's boorish behavior, demands that he leaves. Masugi is attracted to Rosario; being drunk and used to Filipino submission to Japanese military authority, he makes a pass at her. Rosario slaps him; offended, Masugi strikes her. Francis holds Rosario's family at gunpoint while Masugi chases her down into the basement and rapes her.
It's a familiar story with wartime Filipinos; the family's young women taken aside by Japanese soldiers and brutally used. When Masugi comes back the next day and makes friendly overtures, we're on Rosario's side: how dare he take up where he left off? And how dare he look so sincere about it?
We eventually learn that Masugi is sincere: he helps her family, and he's happy when he learns that she's pregnant. Rosario's family is won over by the canned goods and rice and well-meaning attempts to make amends, but Rosario refuses to forgive. He's not just a rapist, he's Japanese--the personification of everything she, her family, and every wartime Filipino fear and hate. More, Rosario is committed to Crispin, and any sign of relenting on her part would mean betraying him. Rosario is cornered all around--on one side by her hatred of the Japanese in general and Masugi in particular, on the other by her family's insistence that she accept him, on yet another by her growing attraction for the Japanese officer. She's waging--bravely, as she does all things--a one-woman Resistance movement, except she's less and less sure what to resist.
Sometimes her defiance takes her beyond the boundaries of common humanity. When her father is arrested in a shooting incident and Masugi gets him out, Rosario is angry. She doesn't care if her father is safe; all she knows is that they're deeper in Masugi's debt. "Not once," she declares when her mother chides her, "did I accept a gift from him." Her mother looks down at her swollen belly and says: "you're lying and you know it." Rosario blinks as if slapped in the face.
Rosario's dilemma is similar to what Huck Finn faced near the end of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, when Huck learns that his friend Jim has been captured and chained. Society taught Huck that it's wrong to free slaves; should he go free Jim? Should Huck do something clearly wrong--willfully damn himself to hell, in effect--for the sake of friendship? Is Rosario ready to accept a Japanese officer--the conqueror and killer of so many of her people, the man who raped her?
The fiercest assault on Rosario's resolve comes from an unexpected source. Francis has helped Rosario given birth; as she lies on bed resting, he sits beside her and talks--tells her what kind of man Masugi is, how his parents were killed inside a Filipino prison, how the boy had to make his way alone across chaotic Manila, to seek safety with Francis. Tells Rosario how war brutalized the youth, taught him not to think--simply act and fight, like an animal. Rosario and her child has changed the man; can't she open up to him a little?
I don't know what went into this scene--presumably Gallaga's Tagalog was less than perfect (he is a Bacoleno, possibly more fluent in Spanish), and O'Hara must have seized upon this limitation and turned it to the scene's advantage. Francis' twisted Tagalog--his helpless groping, his determined careful need to say the right words to Rosario--is what makes the scene heartbreaking. O'Hara has hinted before at the close tie between the two men, but only now, between the awkward pauses in Francis' speech, does the strength of their relationship shine through.
Art critic Jolico Cuadra claims that Francis and Masugi must have been intimates at one point. As proof he offers a scene where the two are urinating: friends look at each others' penises and shyly compare sizes; 'more than friends' do not--they are already familiar with each other's genitals. Fascinating claim that fits neatly into the scheme of the film but in a way beside the point. Francis and Masugi's affection for each other is a variation on the film's theme, and whether this affection was physically expressed or not isn't half as important as the fact that Francis' little speech moves Rosario, shows her how wrong she is to resist.
Perhaps Francis's talk was the last straw; perhaps it's the recurrent image of Masugi grinding away on top of her, whispering endearments. But something snaps in Rosario; she feels driven to resolve this conflict. The act proposed is brutal in its logic, extending her line of thinking to its ultimate and terrible conclusion. There must have been a moment, possibly while standing on the stone bridge, when Rosario looked back and saw the steps taken along the way--how valid they seemed, how reasonable and sane--in comparison to the monstrosity of what she is about to do.
And she backs down. Doesn't have enough hate in her to go through with it. Strange how an act of acceptance and forgiveness can seem craven to the one committing it.
Rosario's decision is the turning point of the film; from then on, she is on Masugi's side and never wavers, even when she meets Crispin again, even until the end. O'Hara having taken pains to show us the wrongness of Rosario's defiance now demonstrates the wrongness of the rest of the world in judging Rosario for her decision. Rosario has done what she felt in her heart was true; now we come realize what Rosario has done: gone over to the Japanese, married one of their officers just when they are on the brink of losing the war.
Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is remarkable for what its two halves achieve. In the first half O'Hara pulls us through the looking-glass, the world frozen on its axis and flipped upside-down, to show us how the wrong man can turn out right. In the second half O'Hara performs an even simpler act: allows the world to start turning again, and lets us watch while it rolls over Rosario and Masugi.
In The Human Factor, Graham Greene writes that nations don't matter people do, and that a man's true country is his wife and child; with this rationale the novel's hero betrays his country for the sake of his wife and child. Both stories share a common element, an intensity of identification with the treasonous protagonist--Maurice in The Human Factor, Rosario in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. We look at the world through their eyes and we are made to understand how reasonable their betrayal seem to them, involving as it does someone or something they cared about. They seem to say to us: "if you can't do anything--literally anything--for the one person you care about most; if you can't betray your country, your friends, your own self for that other's sake, then your bond is worthless."
Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and its better-known literary cousin are subversive in the worse sense. If everyone adopted this kind of thinking the world would slide into chaos, espionage would be the world's top industry and no one can trust anyone capable of any kind of attachment.
There are those, of course, who argue that the world is already chaos, that espionage is already a vast industry, and that no one should ever be trusted.
A fiery, flawed, fearless film, reckless and outsized in its intensity, its understated passion, it speaks eloquently on the nature of sacrifice and on the cruelties and kindnesses human beings are capable of.
By film's end Rosario sits alone in a church with no one to turn to. She once again resorts to prayer, and asks nothing from God except to look after her baby. A risky move, a desperate move; she did this once before for Crispin and as with Crispin her prayer was paid for with pain and suffering. You might call Rosario's The Story of a Girl Whose Prayers are Always Answered; the tragedy lies in the swiftness and brutality of God's response.
Later, Crispin sits in the same church. He is alive thanks to Rosario, but (again, thanks to Rosario) alone. He asks a priest if there is a God--an old question, but in Crispin's sad and bitter voice, a question with an edge.
The priest gives a reassuring reply: that Masugi's relationship with Rosario is a sign of God's presence even during this infernal Occupation. The answer is a bit too well-prepared, the kind priests through the years have handed out like so many fortune cookie slips; you wonder how much faith O'Hara puts in such replies.
Then O'Hara gives his own response, in the form of a blind man lighting a candle for himself and his palsied brother. The blind man carefully picks up the child, and makes his way out the church when a procession complete with hundreds of candles and heavily costumed wooden saints, marches in. The symbolism is obvious: true faith walks quietly out the door while pomp and pageantry make a grand, meaningless entrance. But the entire wordless scene is so quiet, so exquisitely shot and staged--an example of pure cinema--that it takes your breath away. Yes, Crispin, there must be a God--only he could have inspired O'Hara to shoot a scene like that.
From Menzone Magazine February 98
This post is part of the 100 films: Lovesick Blog-a-Thon