Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sisa (Gerardo de Leon, 1951)

Thanks to Video48 for the photo

On the occasion of Gerardo de Leon's yearlong centennial, an appreciation of the Jan. 18 screening of Sisa (CCP Dream Theater)

Mother dearest

Gerardo de Leon's Sisa (1951) is amazing, not the least because the director takes a memorable if minor character from Filipino activist and intellectual Jose Rizal's seminal political novel Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) and makes her the protagonist of his film. Tom Stoppard tried something similar on the theater stage with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead some fifteen years later--a film version followed forty years after that--and achieved only a fraction of de Leon's visual panache.

Interesting to note what changes were wrought in Teodorico Santos' adaptation. Where Rizal's novel is a panoramic diorama of Philippine society under Spanish rule--from the leisurely upper classes to the bourgeois intelligensia to the oppressed or revolutionary lower classes--Santos' focus is on Sisa, on her oppression by both Church and State, and her swift descent into insanity. The novel is a sprawling epic that really needs the room only a television mini-series can provide to properly develop the narrative (de Leon's own adaptation ten years later would run three hours and still feel rushed); focusing on Sisa helps cut down on the complicated subplots and sharpen the novel's social criticism, throwing in a feminist subtext for free: to Sisa all men are violent, rapacious sonofabitches--unless they mean well, in which case they're impotent.

Interesting how the men in Sisa's life--I count four--lust after her, not because she's a wanton constantly tossing come-hither glances, but because she's a chaste wife and mother who struggles to care for her two sons and no-good husband. It's her purity that seems to interest them, her goodness; when she loses her sanity, her dress slipping stealthily off one shoulder, they seem to lose interest--she has no virtue (having no mind) and hence nothing of value to violate (the one exception--the sacristan--is regarded as an especially low, contemptible creature). Interesting too how physically memorable the men are: Antonio stands menacingly tall in his uniform as officer of the Guardia Civil; Sacristan Baldo glares savagely out of his huge dead eye; Elias--heroic Elias, second only to Crisostomo Ibarra in the novel's order of prominence, and apparently vulnerable to Sisa's charms-- is the fire-breathing revolutionary, noble in both thought and deed (actually he's the dullest of the bunch); Pedro is the alcoholic wife-beater who acquires a set of facial scars from the Guardia which, with long imprisonment, bloom into hideously swollen leprosy sores (guess who she married).

The men have such vivid presence they might've crowded Sisa off the screen if she wasn't played by the beyond-gorgeous Anita Linda (still acting in movies as of the time of this writing, thanks for asking)--you might say the men oppress Sisa not just socially or politically or sexually, but aesthetically (how's that for medium fitting message?). 

When Sisa finally cracks--when she slips past the bounds of reason--a strange thing happens: she's finally free. Social norms and taboos stop constricting her; the entire ungainly hierarchical social structure stops weighing down on her much-abused head as she wanders away, singing in her cracked, broken-doll voice. Yet despite the apparent helplessness, the putative pathos of this famed figure of Philippine folklore, Sisa deranged is actually more expressive, more modern in thought and deed than her more socially accepted contemporaries. People have wondered if Jose Rizal had created Maria Clara--demure Maria Clara, virginal in thought and virtuous in deed--as a paragon or parody of the Filipina; in Sisa we see Rizal's idea of an alternative. Sisa goes where she wants, laughs when and as loudly as she wants, even strikes out in response to her oppressors; it's as if Rizal were suggesting that a woman's only proper response to this perversion of a society (the Philippines under Spanish rule, with strong parallels to today) is to go mad.

De Leon is a master of Gothic cinema, and here his visual style helps elevate the melodrama (and Noli Me Tangere crammed into the running time of a normal film would qualify as melodrama, if not unintended comedy) to the level of tragedy. He's full of startling shots and cunning effects: a child, for example, dropped down a flight of stairs (you wince and wonder 1. where they found a stunt man small enough to pass for a child or 2. given that's a real child then how--or if--the poor thing survived the fall); the moment the boy hits the floor, a shock cut to Sisa whirling to face the camera, her motion a neat reflection of the plot's sudden turn of events; canted angles underlining either oppression or subjugation (the Sacristan looming over his helpless charges; said charges looking up at the all-powerful Sacristan); beautifully moody lighting (Sisa's two children trapped in the shadows of the cathedral belfry, like Hansel and Gretel trapped in a forest of stone).

More than any other device the film makes brilliant use of the close-up. The very first image is of a woman running through a field right up to the camera lens, her eyes wide, her hair wild; she turns slowly, a smile playing about her lips--it's Sisa, and our first impressions are of a sensual and mysterious, perhaps even dangerous, woman. The rest is told in flashback: Ibarra with a jeweled necklace mesmerizes Sisa into narrating her story, and we marvel at the contrast between the beautiful if passive woman of days past, and this near-feral figure crouched before us like a tiger about to spring.

De Leon would use the close-up constantly throughout the film, for a number of reasons: to capture the husband's horrific leper makeup (shot in half-shadow, the dark half forcing our imaginations to work overtime); to highlight emotion (the officer confronts Sisa, his face a mask of frozen lust); to express a character's domination over the situation (the alfares' wife as she leers over her hapless victim). But his camera would return again and again to the face of Anita Linda as if to marvel at her (somehow chaste) carnality, her emotional yet intelligent eloquence. If I had earlier named four men who adored Sisa, I stand corrected: the fifth is de Leon with his camera coming at her from every angle, shooting her through every combination of light and shadow, in an endless variety of poses, in an endlessly transmuting state of ecstasy, terror, and despair. 

First published in Businessworld, 1.16.14 

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