Thursday, February 15, 2018

Magnifico (2003, Maryo J. de los Reyes)

Belated tribute to filmmaker Maryo J. de los Reyes: thoughts on one of his most highly regarded works

It's a wonderful life
Maryo J. de los Reyes' Magnifico is something fairly new in recent Philippine cinema: a wholesome family picture that's actually quite good. 

Along with the absence of sex 'n violence 'n CGI the movie lacks overcomplicated subplots, heavy-handed melodrama, sadistic villains, masochistic heroes. There's an extended sequence of people weeping but one of the little miracles of this little film is that you don't object too much--the tears feel earned. 

What it does have is the conviction that the story of a boy with the odd name of Magnifico trying to help family and neighbors is actually enough to hold one's interest for two hours, even win one's heart. Magnifico's family has serious problems: his sister (Isabella de Leon) has cerebral palsy; his father (Albert Martinez) struggles to find work; his grandmother (Gloria Romero) is dying of cancer.  He's surrounded by loneliness and pain and all kinds of needs--and he himself isn't anything obviously special. He has no magical abilities a la Harry Potter, or Ring of Power a la Frodo Baggins; he isn't even very bright.  All he has is the innocence (ignorance, if you like) to attempt the impossible, the imagination (insanity, if you like) to think up creative ways around that impossibility, and the stout heart (stubbornness, if you like) to persevere.

A modest film of modest virtues that nevertheless feels special--an especially difficult feat to pull off.  Depicting life realistically enough for people to recognize without boring them, cracking jokes that are funny without violating the characters' integrity, betraying just enough sentiment to move people without being cloying. On top of this elaborate balancing act the film manages to sustain a specific emotional tone--a skewed sense of mild enchantment, as if the very air sparkled, faintly. Think Amelie without the magic--or at least magic of the obvious kind.

Part of the credit must go to Michiko Yamamoto, who came up with the idea and created the characters in her prizewinning screenplay (first prize, Film Development Foundation).  Part goes to de los Reyes who with intelligent camerawork and sprightly pacing manages to realize in visual terms the elusive tone the script seeks and achieves with seeming effortlessness.  Part goes to the excellent cast: Amy Austria as casually funny neighbor; Mark Gil as brooding bus driver; Tonton Gutierrez as wealthy employer; Lorna Tolentino as Magnifico's sorely tried mother; Gloria Romero as fragile old grandmother (a part she played in Tanging Yaman only this time better written).

Jiro Manio is good as Magnifico--cute but not excessively so, able to carry the film and at the same time sustain (effortlessly, always effortlessly) that all-important tone.  Isabella de Leon is particularly good as the sister with cerebral palsy--she plays out entire scenes not just with twisted hands and distorted mouth, but with a distinct character in mind, who develops as the film progresses. Albert Martinez gives possibly his finest performance in a long time as the hard-luck father--especially liked the moment when he's asked the name of his newborn child and he pauses (dreamy, faraway look on his face) before replying: "Magnifico!"  Watching him, you understand where the child's windmill-tilting spirit comes from.

The existence of a film like Magnifico is every bit as unlikely as its title character.  Yamamoto had been working on scripts at Viva Films for several years without making much of an impact; de los Reyes had been churning out all kinds of movies, from melodramas to lurid sex flicks (Red Diaries, Paraiso ni Efren).  De los Reyes had to discover her script, then find a producer in Ms. Violett of Violett Films willing to hand over money (a lot, I hear--you wonder, can this movie actually make its investment back?). Philippine cinema is in dire straits, has been for years, is worse off now more than ever; miracles like this allow you some hope for the industry. 

First published in Businessworld 2.14.03 

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