Thursday, December 13, 2018

Three Years Without God (Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, Mario O'Hara)

Two women

Last October my mother died.

Which to the world at large may not mean much. But it was with her in mind that I saw the digitally restored version of Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), recently released on iTunes.

Not an inappropriate choice. I was in a dark mood and the film--well the title says it all: three years so awful the people felt abandoned by God. 

(Warning! Story details and plot twists discussed)

The film opens with the start of World War 2: Rosario (Nora Aunor) is engaged to Crispin (Bembol Roco), who leaves her to fight the Japanese. Japanese officer Masugi (Christopher de Leon) rapes Rosario, leaving her pregnant with two unhappy alternatives: to resist Masugi's offer of marriage and starve with the rest of her fellow Filipinos, or accept the offer and be called a Japanese sympathizer (or worse).

Following her story I realized: Rosario is my mother. Not that my mother experienced war and its horrors or that she was ever caught in an indelicate position between two suitors but this: the world was convinced it was right and she was wrong. And no matter what she did or how much she tried to change things, the world remained convinced it was right and she was still wrong.

My mother's sin was to marry into a wealthy family. O she worked hard to be accepted; she went back to school and studied veterinary medicine (she already had a business administration degree) to help in the family's farming operations. She bore two sons--me, my twin brother--which ideally should have delighted all involved. But the nature of my family being what it is (And who am I to judge when something acts according to its nature?) there was always tension. My mother being strongwilled never gave up trying--first, to earn their good graces; later, to pull free of their hold and influence.

Rosario never does anything by halves. When she resists--Masugi's proposal for example to make her the wife of a Japanese officer (a lieutenant judging from his insignia)--she's feet-planted-in-the-ground against it. She loathes Masugi, and nothing he (who wants to do right by her) or her mother or the growing gnawing hunger in her belly can say to her will shift her stance.

When my mother left my father after a bitter fight she took me with her (I was--what, seven eight years old?) and fled to the provinces. Only me? What about my little sister? What about my brother, from whom I've never been separated? Will I ever see my father again? But she was furious, and would not be calmed.

Rosario relents; so eventually did my mother. While capable of change, it isn't easy for these women; O'Hara measures the depth of her hate from the tip of Rosario's arms, sitting atop a high bridge, to the rocky chasm below. I measured my mother's anger by the miles she drove from home. When Rosario altered course she stuck to that course for the rest of the war; when my mother returned to my father she stayed with him for the rest of her life--bore him three more girls, all four more emotionally mature than I am, all (I like to think) a better representation of my parents' childraising skills than I could ever hope to be.

And the world still would not forgive these women, still would not let them forget their outsider status, still would insist that they were wrong. Did I say my mother never experienced war? She was in a constant state of battle. Arguably the most desperate most exhausting conflicts are fought not between nations or peoples but within a nation or people--within if you like a family.

It cost my mother dearly, I think and part of that cost was the affection between us. If I want to drive myself crazy I stay up late at night trying to untangle the complex knot of feelings in my head: why did it happen who was to blame? Sometimes I assign all fault to myself sometimes to no one sometimes to her; sometimes I take a long hard look in the mirror and see the disappointment I must have been. Sometimes I theorize (Fantasize?) that in her need to finally be rid of my father's family--live life the way she sees fit with her husband and children--everything else fell away, including (though she may not have intended it) me. Sometimes I think my mother's private war was so exhausting so full of despair I had to escape--allow myself some chance at survival. 

How bad did things get? When I finally heard news of her death (I haven't seen her in fifteen years)--not a tear. I was stone inside. 

I watched Rosario struggle as the war wound down to its end and saw how the world narrowed rapidly, how a Japanese officer's whore (as many would call her) is forced to run in smaller and smaller circles, seeking escape. She can't afford to be nice; when the city is bombed and her housemaid goes into hysterics she slaps the young girl drags her away. As the world falls apart around her Rosario's priorities sharpen into microscopic points: stay by her husband's side, keep her family safe. In the end she can only do one of the two tasks.

I watch Rosario, then think of my mother in the months following her third stroke, her world narrowed down to a single bed, paralyzed, unable to speak, barely able to see and touch and hear. Still for all I know loyal to her husband, still fighting that war inside her head.

The world after its great recession its simmering regional wars its escalating political and racial tensions seems to have less and less use for art--for the way art refracts life, the way it unsettles us and startles us into seeing that life in a new way. I don't know; I must disagree. I stand alongside my mother and assert--never mind if I she we are wrong--that while life is of primary importance art still retains some lasting value. I have many reasons for being fond of this film, and have found a new one: in its profound empathy for its characters good or evil right or wrong, it has brought my mother back to me. 

First published in Businessworld 12.7.18

No comments: