Thursday, May 23, 2019

Anak Dalita (Child of Sorrow, Lamberto Avellana, 1956)

Survivor type

I have to confess not liking this, arguably Lamberto Avellana's most famous work, when it screened back in the '90s; I had been discovering Gerardo de Leon back then and was in love with the maestro's tilted camera angles and Fordian (Eisensteinian?) mis-en-scene, the little figures running diagonally across a vast pitiless landscape. 

Does a second viewing and the passage of several decades make a difference? Absolutely. The first shot is of a cathedral belfry against a lightly clouded sky--only the bell seems to be missing the intricately carved cornices have crumbled and a small bush has sprouted (like an unruly beard) from one corner. The camera descends past exposed brick and spiderweb cracks and blindly staring celestory windows to find teeming life at ground level: kids hunched close to the dirt, playing; men collected at a grocery shack, drinking; laundry hung from string stretched across the cathedral archway. The camera follows a mother walking to the left cradling a weeping child; catches sight of and follows Tita (Rosa Rosal) striding in the opposite direction. She is in striking contrast with the surrounding squalor: black hair piled high; slender neck; statuesque smoothskinned figure wrapped in a gleaming spaghetti-strap, perched on heeled shoes (she pauses to adjust those shoes--apparently her feet are sore). 

"Streetwalker" you think and you wouldn't be wrong. But Tita's coming back from work to check on sick old Tinay (Rosa Aguirre) who's crying out for her son Vic (Tony Santos), a soldier who served in the Korean war. Vic arrives barely in time; amidst the melodrama playing out between son and dying mother, what strikes the eye is the slash of Vic's slim body curving over his wheezing mother's form while Tita discreetly sits behind, supporting her head--Vic's left arm is paralyzed, and remains unmoving at his side. The arm isn't mentioned till later but thanks to Avellana's staging and composition (the camera frame focusing on the three bedside figures, Vic's limp arm in the foreground pointedly failing to clutch his beloved parent) we grasp the situation in an instant, including Vic's disability.

That's the setup: the mother dying, the soldier's infirmity, soldier and prostitute meeting. What develops over the course of the film is the relationship between the latter two, one proud of his wartime exploits yet psychically devastated by the wound he earned during said exploit, the other the proverbial Whore with the Heart of Gold played with peppery relish by Rosal (sitting at her makeup table in only a bathrobe while Vic stands behind: "You know how to stare"). Vic is mournfully sullen; Tita can't help provoking him by flashing a thigh, and he resents the teasing. "You can't stand the people here," she tells him. He denies the accusation. "They're no different from you," he adds. Tita bristles at the implied condescension. "We're all the same here," Tita responds, pointing out that everyone helped Vic's ailing mother while he was firing guns in Korea. "Some big shot!"

Frequent Avellana collaborator Rolf Bayer, an American writing in English whose dialogue is translated into Tagalog, doesn't seem to betray any difficulty in capturing the feisty domestic given-and-take of Filipino couples. Avellana seems to appreciate this; more than Gerardo de Leon, his films (thanks in a large part to Bayer) have a casual contemporary sound to them, of people talking like ordinary people not declaiming like allegorical figures. 

No Avellana does not have de Leon's larger-than-life visual style--and thank goodness; instead he broadens Philippine cinema's variety and range with a more understated humanist look. He inserts documentarylike footage of postwar Manila (including a shot of nighttime Binondo at its glitziest), shoots a large portion of his film in noirish dark (including one startling scene of Vic throwing a one-armed drunken fit at a club). He develops the visual metaphor of the magnificent old church--the result of the Catholic Church hiring Filipino labor (financed largely by donations from the Filipino faithful) to create Castillan grandeur--brought to ruin by the Second World War, then repurposed to humbler use as literal instead of spiritual shelter to the poor.    

Vic puts the frankly subversive idea into words: "Shouldn't the house of God also provide shelter to people in need?" he asks of Father Fidel (Vic Silayan) when the priest announces that the church has to be cleared for rebuilding. There's an intriguing coyness to the Avellana-Bayer team: in films like Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay and this the filmmakers question status quo (the evils of communism, the corrosive influence of material wealth, the authority of church and government) only to land firmly on the side of established wisdom. Vic stepping forward to ask the question is as far as the film gets; Father Fidel has no ready answer, but prevaricates: "Let time find a solution to this problem of ours."  

Ultimately (skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film!) the money to relocate the squatters falls literally from the sky, in the form of gang lord and currency smuggler Kardo (Avellana regular Joseph de Cordova) plunging to the ground, to be immediately approached by Father Fidel. Is Kardo willing to give up his money to the community? Unlikely--but what does he have to lose? Throughout the film the pair have this suggestively comfortable relationship--when they are introduced to each other they nod familiarly like old acquaintances; when Kardo asserts that "money can buy anything" Father Fidel doesn't launch into a diatribe against roots and evil but remains tactfully silent. When Kardo asks Vic if it matters where the money comes from you assume Avellana posed the question to be later refuted or knocked down--turns out Father Fidel will accept the money after all, no questions asked. 

You wonder if perhaps Avellana and Bayer hoped to rock the powers that be but pull back at the last minute to avoid censorship, leaving their issues hanging in midair (Is communism so bad? Is money really such a corrosive influence? Is the church (and government) truly trustworthy?) to be resolved by the viewer on his own. In Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay the answer is clear: collective action is good only if duly sanctioned by established authorities. In Anak Dalita you think good triumphs and the church has once again led its flock to the promised land but Father Fidel seems to have pulled a fast one under everyone's noses, totally in line (it must be admitted) with the film's theme of repurposing and redemption. 

The ruined church recycled as homeless shelter; damaged Vic put to use restoring damaged religious statues; Tita considering marriage, wondering if a woman like her can find happiness in a man like Vic. "You'd be surprised," Father Fidel informs her, with what appears to be a mischievous--subversive, even--twinkle in his eye. Graham Greene in The End of the Affair talked about how salvation eats away at one's defiance, how this process of corrupting the will isn't all that different from how evil corrupts the soul--a startling notion that gets affirmation in this of all film. We "have to forgive the past" Father Fidel tells Tita (tells us) and "face the future." Food for thought, to be carefully chewed over and savored. 

First published in Businessworld 5.17.19

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