Friday, November 04, 2011

Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, Mario O'Hara, Jon Red), Week 4

Love in a Tupperware
Continued from Part 3

On wondering how Mario O'Hara and Jon Red's Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, 2011) is unique to Philippine television--or to Filipino cinema, for that matter--one thinks of the expansive format (an hour every weekday, for one month, roughly twenty hours' running time), and the set limit (one month exactly, though recently there has been word that the series will run for an extra week). The format guarantees us complex storylines, rounded characters, a royal flush of grand performances, confrontations, dramatic climaxes; the limit assures us that the series will not go on and on recycling story plot points, stretching running time with pointless or repetitious dialogue, adding climax after climax after climax till the series has worn out its carefully cultivated sheen of credibility. If the series ends as originally envisioned, it should crescendo at the proper time, swiftly wrap everything up in a grand and intricate knot, leave us wishing for an extension however limited, not its swift and painless death. 

Easier said than done.

I've talked about how the series took recent political history (Marcos' powerful wife Imelda; Ninoy Aquino's martyrdom and his wife's rise to power) and used this as a jumping-off point to weave its own unique mythology: that of Elena Deogracias (Nora Aunor), widowed wife of Amang Deogracias (Bembol Roco), running against incumbent Pepe Ilustre (Christopher de Leon) for the office of governor of the province of Verano and somehow winning, the Cinderella of the ballot box. 

I've noted how for all its patriarchal trappings and show of Filipino machismo (the brothers Alfonso (Alwyn Uytingco) and Angelo (Edgar Allan Guzman) Deogracias, the shadowy Zaldy Sanchez (Ian De Leon, Aunor's real-life son), the show has really been a struggle for domination between two diametrically opposed women: Elena Deogracias and Lucia Ilustre (Rosanna Roces), wife of Pepe and true instigator of Amang's death. That this is really a duel between two actors with differing styles--Aunor with grim mouth and lustrous eyes, Roces with feline growl and eloquent body language. 

Aunor is the more experienced actress but cannot act in a vacuum; Roces, faced with a formidable opponent, steps up her game, proving time and time again to be a worthy adversary--one only has to cite their various confrontations, from the free-for-all on muddy fields to the catty remarks during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. More impressive are the various fulminating soliloquies Lucia delivers with regards to her diminutive foe. "I'm the hero of this story," she insists at one point, making explicitly metaphysical what she has been implicitly suggesting for the past fifteen or so episodes; Aunor replies with one of her eloquently intense glares.

Word has it that Aunor's vocal cords were damaged in a surgical accident, and that's a shame; you can hear the damage in the occasional hoarseness of her voice. But the directors of her scenes (mostly O'Hara, I hear) uses that hoarseness to her advantage--at times the voice suggests a woman tired beyond endurance, having lost a husband and gained an entire province to care for; at other times the voice suggests a woman so choked up by emotion it comes out rough, grated, as if torn from her throat. 

The voice problem also suggests how the director can handle her in large crowd scenes--by posing her against a background of heightened emotion (a sea of wailing faces, say) against which she often serves as dramatically still center (see Amang's death, or Alfonso's surrender). This also shapes her approach to her character--that Elena is a woman constantly suppressing her feelings, biting her tongue, the classic stereotypical Filipina with superhuman self-control, who often lulls other into off-balanced complacency thinking she won't fight back (see Apo (Leo Rialp), the party leader; Dorinda (Raquel Villavicencio) the vice-governor; later Lucia herself). Her Elena delivers few soliloquies, but her actions time and time again (her handling of the tape-recording scandal; her response to the death of Pacita (Eugene Domingo), her sister and close adviser) speak pages of a political challenger willing and able to match Lucia's veteran chess master.
I've also mentioned how the writers (Dinno Erece, Jerry Gracio, Benedict Mique, Pamela Miras) have cleverly weaved into the storyline allusions from series' star Nora Aunor's own film career, from the classic tandem of Bembol, Christopher, and Nora (the same casting used in O'Hara's own Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years without God, 1976)) to her own uncomfortable yet affectionate dealings with De Leon's Pepe Ilustre (a sly nod to the actors' own failed marriage and complicated shared past).

I love how the characters actually undergo change over the course of the series, perhaps the most dramatic being Uytingco's Alfonso Deogracias, Elena's drug-kingpin stepson. What makes his narrative arc so satisfying is that he makes both a convincingly defiant prodigal son and an equally passionate repentant sinner. Nadine Samonte's Mayor Andrea Deogracias hasn't been able to make her villainous mayor all that distinctive in her villainy, but the young woman does hurt and vulnerability very well--when she calls out for her stepmother, it sounds and feels like a true crie de coeur.

Perhaps a subtler metamorphosis can be found in Christopher De Leon's Pepe Ilustre. His wheel-chair bound political veteran at first seemed meant to allude to everything from the sinister Dr. Strangelove to the heroic Ron Kovic, but the figure he eventually resembles is Carlito Brigante--like Carlito he finds himself nose-deep in politics; like Carlito he seeks a way out, here finding it embodied in his political opponent. 

One can do a psychological case study on the man: from energetic campaigning as electoral contestant to hurt sullenness as defeated candidate to quietly heartfelt supporter of his nemesis the character of Pepe Ilustre feels many-faceted, patiently drawn, complete. Every time he gives Elena help it's made explicit what the consequences will be to his own political power and long-amassed family fortune, and he dismisses the issue with casual cheer; he has a heavy debt to pay. De Leon manages to suggest a man fully aware of the burden imposed by his many sins in a too-long political career; one senses in his introverted, understated performance a man who has felt trapped in the maze-like hallways of power, and has finally sniffed a way out--not easy, not quickly realized, but something he can work on with patience and determination. 

Then there's the notion of food--in particular Filipino comfort food (we like Hobbits do love our meals--from agahan (breakfast) to tanghalian (lunch) to merienda (afternoon snack) to hapunan (dinner)). I've complained since time immemorial that food is one major aspect of Filipino culture that has been sadly ignored by our films; at most the scriptwriter throws in a few lines: "Eat that, I prepared that, it should be delicious," or a mother will say: "have you eaten, child? I've prepared your favorite dish..." not of course bothering to mention what dish has been prepared and how, and what relevance all this could have on the film's story. 

Not quite so with Sa Ngalan ng Ina. Almost every major scene has either the Deogracias or Ilustres talking over a meal; a crucial scene has Alfonso bonding with Pacita over a meal of humba (pork in pineapple sauce)--one major reason Alfonso is so fond of her (as opposed to his stepmother Elena) is that she makes the humble yet delicious comfort meal exactly the way he likes it. Later, when Pacita is killed and he goes into hiding in defiance of his stepmother, his young brother brings him a small Tupperware container from Elena. Alfonso plucks out a piece of pork and tastes it. "Ah," he says, "so she's learned to cook like her sister. This is just like Pacita's cooking." 

Angelo laughs. "Elena has been cooking this for you all along. Pacita is allergic to pineapple." Alfonso looks down on the container of pork and--love this gesture--whips off his sunglasses to take a better look. He has this brief twisted expression--as if the piece of pork he had just eaten had turned into a lump of live coal in his belly--and informs Angelo that he wants to surrender. 

So there you have it--a major turning point has just occurred, and over a piece of pork! Crazy? Nonsensical? When you think about it, aren't we Filipinos driven not so much by our hearts but by our stomachs, the strongest emotional call being from our favorite childhood dishes? Isn't a mother's care most clearly expressed through her cooking, and isn't her most secret, most powerful ingredient the love she puts into her dishes? And isn't this sentiment the kind found--unspoken, unremarked, but nevertheless securely, unmistakably there--at the heart of every Filipino?

Alfonso's spectacular surrender--a major setpiece by Jon Red--has all of the series's major dramatic guns firing. Dozens of extras; a fleet of police vehicles with flashing lights; TV vans and reporters; a brief statement from the fugitive as he is handcuffed; a heartfelt hug of reconciliation with his mother. What makes the scene, however, is a throwaway gesture from Elena where she turns away and mostly unnoticed by everyone (except us) wipes away a tear. Again Aunor, doing what she does best--with all the turmoil around her she performs a quiet little gesture and simply but surely steals our hearts.

Later is a scene almost as moving--and Aunor doesn't even do a thing. Andrea has had a miscarriage; a series of dissolves (faultlessly timed by O'Hara, I'm told) shows Elena faithfully watching over her as she sleeps in a hospital bed. She wakes up and finds Elena, exhausted, asleep by her side. Simplest of gestures, really, for Andrea to lift up her hand and stroke Elena's sleeping head--but it's easily Nadine Samonte's finest, most tender moment as an actress.

Then there's the confrontation between the incarcerated Alfonso and Elena, sitting together in a near-bare set (one wonders if it is a set--looks like an everyday room dressed at the last moment to stand in for the city jail's visiting area). The scene starts simply enough, with just ambient sound in the background (none of that teleserye music they're so fond of pouring over almost every scene): Alfonso, standing, tells her that one of his men will keep feeding her office information. They both act shyly, unable to look at each other; unnoticed by Alfonso, Elena lays out a Tupperware container. 

Alfonso asks about Angelo (he had shot his younger brother by accident, while aiming for Pepe Ilustre); Elena says he's fine. You hear the krikk! of Tupperware lids being fussed with. Alfonso turns at the sound and for the first time looks at Elena "You're ruining my reputation," he tells her, referring to the way he's being pampered in prison. At this point Red (with the help of composer Carmina Cuya) introduces music with a few hesitant notes from a piano (a welcome change, that--using actual instruments instead of a generic synthesizer). 

Alfonso informs Elena that he knows Pacita was allergic to pineapple. She seems to accept the full implication of this (that he knows she's been cooking his humba all along). Red (with diabolical timing) starts the theme proper when she says the line 'it's your favorite dish"--a cliche thing to say, but here somehow perfectly appropriate (she's earned the right, so to speak, to use the line). When Elena tells him she loves all her children including him, Alfonso's face twists and he asks in an agonized whisper: "Why?"

Two things come to mind when viewing this scene. One thinks of the voluptuous sense of dread a torturer creates in his victim--sometimes it's the anticipation of pain rather than actual application  that feels not just agonizing, but exquisite (pain so intense it's perceived as pleasure). I'd have sworn O'Hara directed this, but Red--well, my respect for his abilities has multiplied, tenfold, after  this. 

One also thinks of the moment in Akira Kurosawa's High and Low, where the kidnapper (Tsutomu Yamazaki) declares himself unafraid of the possibility of hell--but is terrified at the prospect of heaven. Uytingco's Alfonso is in a similar bind; he's perfectly willing to go to hell for his sins, but the possibility of being loved unconditionally churns inside him like a knife in the gut. Aunor's dark eyes accept what he expresses absolutely and without judgment--they are a vast bottomless lake, as awesome (and frankly terrifying) a vision of mother's love as anything I've ever seen. 

I say 'terrifying' because this love while pure, isn't purely goodness. Alfonso has many crimes under his belt, crimes that Elena seems perfectly willing to overlook in her zeal to welcome him back (he's responsible for the torture and death of Amang's bomb-thrower for example--and later we learn that the man wasn't as guilty as we first thought). There are implications to Aunor's heroic motherhood, some of them not as saintly in nature as we might initially assume--her capacity for inspiring fanaticism, for one (particularly in Alfonso, the most violent member of her clan); her insistence on professionalism in governance being another, of separating family ties from government affiliation (said principle having apparently been watered down or compromised, if not fallen by the wayside).

If the series ended here or not long after (and in the next episode there were indications of where the series might have been headed prior to concluding), this could easily have been declared a major work not just of Filipino entertainment, but of art; politics and family fused into a popular art form, one illuminating its complex, corrupting influence on the other--that, it seemed, was this teleserye's grand theme. Elena's kidnapping and subsequent torture by Zaldy and Lucia seems to derail all that--suddenly Lucia isn't as plausible a monster anymore; suddenly the episodes are saddled with scenes of Elena's children weeping and gnashing teeth, praying for her safety. Were the writers caught off-guard when the extension was announced? Did they have to inject some makeshift work, add filler to meet deadlines? I don't know; all I know is if the series ends as is, capped with this  inconsistent hiccup, it'll merely be one of the better teleserye yet produced, when I'm hoping it's the best thing--on TV or on the big screen--I'd seen all year.

Well, they have another week to recover. Here's hoping for the best. 



Anonymous said...

Well-thought of commentary. I like the "humba' thing, (food being given much emphasis which most of the time is forgotten).
I can see other loopholes of the teleserye particularly the big scenes such as rallies, funeral, police operations, cutting of ribbons, etc. that need bigger crowd to make them appear grand (Provincial gatherings are always grand!) On the contrary all these scenes were shot with a limited number of extras. They appear mediocre -as if the scene is just an ordinary barangay affair. Elena is a Governor not a Barangay Captain. Most of the scenes that need huge crowd were shot inappropriately. Good thing, O'Hara knows how to play with angles.


Incisive and illuminating as always. Sarap basahin, amoy-humba! :-)

Noel Vera said...

Thanks, guys!