Sunday, July 13, 2014

Caridad (from 'Fe, Esperanza, Caridad,' Gerardo de Leon, 1974)

(On the occasion of the CCP screening of Gerardo de Leon's Caridad, during his yearlong centennial celebration)

A love profane

If anyone doubted Filipina singer/actress Nora Aunor's popularity in the late '60s to early '70s one only had to glance at her filmography, during which period she was on something worse than a hot streak, doing an unbelievable seventy or so films in seven years, from 1967 onwards. 

That said, a few caveats: she made her name as a singer first, not actress; she cranked out movies much the way Elvis Presley did, sacrificing quality for quantity...only I doubt if Presley managed even a fraction of her output, much less come up with as-bizarre titles (Cinderella A-Go-Go; D'Musical Teenage Idols!; Tomboy Nora; Teenage Jamboree; Nora in Wondrland; My Blue Hawaii; Super Gee). 

In '74 she would try something unusual, an omnibus film featuring three women (all played by Nora) entitled Fe, Esperanza, Caridad, under the direction of three veteran filmmakers: Cirio Santiago (Fe); Lamberto Avellana (Esperanza); and Gerardo de Leon (Caridad). Fe I could barely remember--a brief rehash of A Star is Born, if I'm not mistaken. Esperanza was an enchanting romantic comedy memorable mainly for Avellana's comic touch, nimble pacing, deft way with colloquial conversation; in this sense at least one can see him as being superior to de Leon, whose dramaturgy (not to mention dialogue) still seems mired in the 19th century.

Seems, that is, till you see
Caridad. De Leon dreamed up the story; Ka Ikong and Jojo Lapus fashioned it into a screenplay (the previous two segments only had one writer each); cinematographer Ricardo David shot it through a series of luridly tinted scarlet-and-mandarin filters. The result might be described as a Rosemary's Baby for the disco era, the corruption and seduction of a beautiful innocent (Sister Caridad, at her deathbed and confessing her sinful past) by the Devil Himself (Ronaldo Valdez channeling John Travolta channeling Tony Montana).

De Leon's segment deserves to be howled off the screen, but the intensity of Valdez (possibly the most virile onscreen Lucifer I can remember), the grave pacing, the highflown dialogue--and yes despite all the aforementioned criticisms the dialogue is poetic*--kills the laughter in your throat. Consider as well De Leon's inimitably Gothic style--can't think of a director more capable of investing emotional significance in a perfect blue sky, less a vision of paradise than a vision of relentless implacability. His angled compositions give us shifting balances of power between man and woman, demon and mortal, seducer and seduced; his color palette is stylized to the point of fantasy--which somehow makes the sequence more not less persuasive (Somehow you just knew Satan would have epic bad taste).

* I could cite any number of examples but one that pops into mind is when Satan looks back at Caridad's dangling crucifix and says (rough translation) "when that cross burned itself into my hand the pain made me forget myself, I thought I was in Paradise with you beside me; but here is my other palm, to remind me we possess different fates--you to praise and adore, I to damn and blaspheme--"  

The result isn't old-fashioned but timeless--the underlying structure of everything expressed in obvious but cinematic terms. The script's audaciously metaphysical (and fairly blasphemous) conceit is worthy of Graham Greene: that goodness is as seductive, as corrosively subversive,  as capable of inflicting suffering as evil...the Devil every bit as deserving of redemption as any other lost soul.

And then there is Nora--impossibly frail next to Valdez's towering frame, her dark skin and darker eyes an intoxicating mix, like rum and uncut cacao. Their shared chemistry is adulterous, to put it politely (hardly the first to notice; audiences did too, and the two were paired up again with De Leon directing a year later, this time on a far more epic scale). When he glares at her, it's with the fury of a man bewildered by the complexity that is woman; when she gazes at him it's with the terrifying confidence of unconditional love. Satan forgiven, re-admitted into Heaven? Think of the course of the universe interrupted, its order thrown upside-down, all angels and demons tossed about in the tumult; that's what De Leon suggests, in a segment barely an hour long, on a budget that wouldn't finance a standard Filipino television commercial. 

No comments: