Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, Mario O'Hara, 1976): one of Sight and Sound's 75 Hidden Gems

Sight & Sound for their 75 anniversary had put together this special issue and asked me to contribute.

The paragraph actually published in the issue has some cuts in it, presumably to shorten the entry (Apparently I was luckier--fellow Filipino critic
Alexis Tioseco contributed not one but three (including Tatlong Taong); they only published one). Not exactly perfectly happy, as it rendered my liddle bit of prose a tad choppy (to me, anyway).

So here's the entry then, in its (relative) and uncut fullness:

Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976) is an epic drama (or as epic as a million-peso budget (around 400,000 in 2007 dollars) will allow) about the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines during World War 2, and a young country schoolteacher's struggle to survive the ordeal.

O'Hara inspires sympathy for the girl's plight the same time he keeps the drama at arm's length (a difficult trick); he combines the classic compositions and editing rhythms of John Ford with the odd baroque image (a parody of a crucifixion; a re-creation of the "Pieta;" a gallery of religious icons gazing down without pity); he combines visuals and blocking with sound, music and dialogue in a way that recalls Orson Welles (like Welles, O'Hara worked in both theater and radio, and the influences show).

Most of all he touches with a delicate yet unflinching hand a still-sensitive topic: the cruelty and humanity of the Japanese military during the war. Countries with firsthand experience of wartime occupation still produce films that look upon the Japanese with unwavering hatred; O'Hara's film is the rare exception (and in fact the picture was attacked for this) that attempts to suggest the Japanese were other than monsters. He presents the atrocities in an often oblique suggestive manner that somehow enhances the horror, the same time he allows for the possibility that a Japanese officer is capable of compassion, even love.

The film of a small nation in effect depicting, encompassing, understanding, even forgiving the crimes of a far more powerful one--that is the unique achievement of this film.

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