Friday, August 05, 2016

Mga Bilanggong Birhen (The Captive Virgins, Mario O'Hara, 1977)

Magnificent obsession

Mario O'Hara's follow-up project after his World War 2 epic Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976) and producer Armida Siguion-Reyna's follow-up production after her Gabriela Silang musical Dung-aw (Dirge, 1975) co-starring Mario Montenegro was this 1977 film: yet another period drama, this time set during the American Occupation, also starring Mr. Montenegro.

Call the film O'Hara's The Magnificent Ambersons: after his misunderstood yet radical debut feature and impressive sophomore effort (Tatlong Taong) the filmmaker must have felt the pressure to deliver an even more sumptuous third, with broader historical sweep and larger cast of characters. For once he had the resources--Armida spared no expenses throwing in a period-accurate car (a '24 Chrysler if I'm not mistaken), a sprawling hacienda complete with elaborately laced beds and furnishings and religious statuary, even an elaborate overhead contraption designed to fan the family's epic-sized dining-room table during hot midday lunches.

The film (also written by O'Hara) operates on three levels: first as an allegory of American oppression--which doesn't seem so bad in retrospect (they gave us modern sewerage, a modern water supply, modern road networks among others) until Kapitan Pablo (Mario Montenegro) points out that the Americans have also put in charge the people who have always been in charge, the upper classes. 

Leading us to the second level, upperclass oppression--and here we see Senor Juan Sagrada (Leroy Salvador) offered a farmer's daughter in exchange for a goat. Things have improved some, if you think about it--during Spanish times Senor Juan would have just taken the daughter by force, without compensation; the goat is a measure of our progress under the Americans. 

French critic Alphonse Karr put it a little better: "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

Equating girl with goat suggests a third level on which the film works best: the oppression of women. Celina (Alma Moreno) and her sister Milagros (Trixia Gomez) are the eponymous virgins, and almost immediately on Celina's arrival she's promised to someone in marriage. The girls have little to say about it of course; the marriages have always been arranged with whoever might help the family best. 

God forbid one should end up like Milagros, who fell for the son of a political opponent; as punishment she's locked away in the basement, where her frustration loneliness and rage have simmered for so long they've driven her mad. When she escapes she boards a passing train (actually an abandoned rail car pushed by a band of plantation workers) vents her frustration in the manner Blanche DuBois once confessed to doing in A Streetcar Named Desire (a deliberate reference I suspect, as O'Hara once played Mitch in Lino Brocka's Filipino version Flores Para Los Muertos). 

Of course one remembers Williams' Southern Gothic metaphor for desire: a lumbering rumbling endless ride that ended at Cemeteries

The family oppression spans generations; Celina and Milagros' mother Felipa (Armida Siguion-Reyna) had already committed the unforgivable crime of falling for Pablo, a peon guilty of 1) being poor and 2) killing a member of society responsible for keeping him poor. Felipa isn't shut away and isn't crazy, but the way she glides through the mansion and gazes at the many selves gazing back from her trifold mirror you sense that her state of mind isn't all that far from Milagros'.

Despite the multilevel approach the film is hardly schematic. The chief oppressor isn't Senor Juan--a spineless hedonist--but his mother Dona Sagrada (Monang Carvajal) who rules the family with cast-iron fist. You wonder how she can do such a thing; you marvel at the perversity of a society that can turn woman against woman, mother against daughter (and granddaughter) for the sake of family unity, to preserve and improve position and power.

As Dona Sagrada Ms. Carvajal is an astringent wonder, spitting out Castilian curses in a tone and manner that compels obedience, whether you understand her or not. As her weakling son Senor Juan (think a brutish and rapacious George Minafer, a yellowbellied Stanley Kowalski) Leroy Salvador inspires both contempt and sympathy--contempt for his outsized appetites and undersized cojones, sympathy for the fact that he can't help how he is, he was raised that way. The moments when life slips past his fragile grasp seem especially poignant--he clearly has never conceived of a life where he and his family are not the privileged elite; the very idea seems to emasculate him. 

As Felipa, Armida Siguion-Reyna is a revelation. She's hardly the highborn queen she's played throughout her career, all regal cheekbones and flashing eyes--framed by a cascade of dark curls and surrounded by a halo of silence, she's stricken fragile haunting. Her Felipa is a repository of memories not just her own or her daughters but of all suffering women, through the years and throughout the islands, a simmering caldera of pain not blessed but afflicted with a grave unsettling beauty.

Ryan Cayabyab's piano score lends Felipa sharp poignant highlights; Romy Vitug's amber candleglow and dustmoted sunbeams illuminate her as if from within. O'Hara's script fleshes out Felipa's loneliness, shoots it from behind ornamented barred windows and heavy oaken doors--suggesting not so much an upper class keeping the world safely shut out but of rebellious Filipa securely shut in. O'Hara seems to subscribe to the theory that a lily is loveliest when most forlorn, and presents Armida accordingly.

Folks talk of Oro, Plata Mata as a Filipino classic, and I can't disagree--the movie is beautifully shot with sumptuous production design--but fails to deliver anything more than a simplistic version of class warfarewith the script rooting for the upper class). I believe O'Hara succeeds by giving us a more textured relationship--exposing flaws, celebrating virtues (also believe that while Rody Lacap's long gliding shots are impressive, Vitug's subtler more modulated lighting serves its story better).

Oro is an exhausting experience: by film's end you're aware of the extreme running length, the onscreen violence. By the end of Mga Bilanggong Birhen you feel for everyone involved, rich poor man woman--in O'Hara's eyes they are all flawed, they are all worthy of being cherished.

Which makes the film's troubled production history all the more puzzling--why did O'Hara leave before finishing? What did he accomplish and what did director Romy Suzara (who took over) add (reportedly the cult sacrifice sequence, in which Lino Brocka in support of O'Hara refused to participate)? When you see what's there--the lush design, the hushed performances, the beyond-gorgeous music and cinematography--you mourn for what might have been (the editing, which O'Hara didn't supervise, leaves much to be desired). This could have been a more emotionally devastating work than Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos; that it isn't is yet another tragedy. 

First published in Businessworld 7.29.16

No comments: