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, and 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 long 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 had also put in charge the people who have always been in charge, the upper classes.
Leading us to the second level, upperclass oppression of the lower--and here we see Senor Juan Sagrada (Leroy Salvador) offered a farmer's daughter in exchange for a goat. Things have improved when 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 most often and best: male 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) and 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' use of the streetcar as symbol for desire: a lumbering, unsteady, out-of-control ride, ending at Cemeteries.
The oppression spans generations; Celina and Milagros' mother Felipa (Armida Siguion-Reyna) had already committed the unforgivable crime of falling in love with Pablo, who in turn is guilty of 1) being poor and 2) killing one member of society responsible for keeping his family 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 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 phrases and curses in a tone and manner that compels obedience, whether you understand 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 shaky control 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 cripple him.
As Felipa, Armida Siguion-Reyna is a revelation. She's hardly the highborn queen she's played for most of her career, all regal cheekbones and flashing eyes; framed instead by a dark cascade of curls and halo of silence, she's stricken fragile haunting. Her Felipa is a repository not just of her own memories but the memories of women's suffering, her daughters and others--through the years, throughout the islands--a brimming simmering caldera of pain that has not blessed but afflicted her 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 desperate loneliness, then shoots it from behind floridly ornamented barred windows and heavy carved oaken doors--suggesting not how the upper class keeps the world shut safely out but of how it keeps its more rebellious members shut securely in. The director apparently believes that a lily is loveliest when bruised and forlorn, and presents Armida accordingly.
Folks talk of Oro, Plata Mata being a Filipino classic, and I can't disagree: the movie has beautiful cinematography and production design, but fails to deliver anything more than a simplistic version of class warfare (with the script visibly rooting for the upper class). I believe O'Hara's film succeeds by giving us a textured relationship between the classes--unflinchingly revealing their flaws, generously celebrating their virtues (also believe that while Rody Lacap's long gliding shots are an impressive achievement they're hardly his best work, and that Vitug's subtler more modulated lighting serves its story better).
Oro is an exhausting experience: by film's end you're aware of the running length, the extreme violence depicted. By the end of Mga Bilanggong Birhen feel the tragedy of all involved, rich and poor and man and woman. In O'Hara's eyes they are all flawed, the same time theyre all worthy of being cherished.
Which makes the film's troubled production history all the more puzzling--why did O'Hara leave before he finished? What did he manage to accomplish and what did director Romy Suzara (who took over) add afterwards (reportedly the cult sacrifice sequence, in which Lino Brocka in support of O'Hara refused to participate)? When you see what's already there--the lush design, the breathtaking performances, the beyond-gorgeous music and cinematography-- you mourn for what might have been, the awkward, all-too-apparent flaws (the editing, which O'Hara didn't supervise, leaves much to be desired). This could have been a greater more emotionally devastating film than Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos; that it isn't is yet another tragedy.
First published in Businessworld 7.29.16