The good earth
(Available with English subtitles at Mike de Leon's Citizen Jake vimeo website)
Manuel Silos' Biyaya ng Lupa (Blessings of the Land, 1959) is so modestly poised so gracefully proportioned one may be hardpressed to say why it's classic. The film may also be one of the least known of great films, remembered mostly by those familiar with '50s Filipino cinema.
The film opens to a tolling church bell, camera craning down to a just-begun wedding celebration--chorus in full volume, old ladies swaying, dancers and musicians streaming towards the screen. Perhaps the most telling image comes late in the festivities: newlyweds Maria and Jose (Rosa Rosal, Tony Santos, Sr.) looking up at the camera while the town elders offer marital advice, the young couple's faces receptive not just to the sage words but (it's suggested) to whatever life and the world will throw at them.
When the couple arrive at their new home--a modest if comfortable nipa hut--Jose reveals his plan to Maria: a plot of lanzones seedlings, to be nurtured and watered for some twenty years before the (hopefully) bountiful harvest.
That's the setup of course: substantial reward after a near-lifetime--two decades--of commitment. Maria and Jose are charming carefree honeymooners (Rosa and Tony look so young!), but already these mute sprouts strike an ominous note: not so much a promise as the prospect of a promise challenged, perhaps broken in the sometime future.
The next twenty or so minutes is a lyrically edited and scored precis of life as it happens to the married couple. Maria and Jose replant the lanzones at properly spaced intervals; water them; plow a nearby field (for crops that will feed and support them during those twenty years). A child is born, and Jose carves his name (the deaf-mute Miguel, to be played by Leroy Salvador) into a coconut tree trunk. Arturo (Carlos Padilla, Jr.) follows; then Angelita (Marita Zobel); then Carmen--who dies early--followed by Lito (Danilo Jurado). A storm wipes out the early lanzones blossoms, delaying harvest and dashing Jose's hopes to send Arturo and Angelita to Manila for schooling (unspoken: Jose believes the handicapped Miguel deserves kind treatment but not formal education--apparently there are limits to the man's progressive sentiments).
A chunk of story simply told, paced to the leisurely tempo of provincial life--often dreary yet blessed with moments of pleasure (holding one's beloved in one's arms; dangling a newborn at the knee; gazing at the blooming crops with unspoken pride).
Linking event and image are Rosa Rosal's lullabies sung to one babe after another while the lanzones develop from sprout to seedling to sapling, dark-olive leaves spreading an ever more confident canopy--it's as if Maria sang to plant and progeny alike, the lanzones not just the children's legacy but their life companions. Everyday life is difficult to depict well on the big screen; I submit that the dull spots and brief highlights of everyday countryside life are an even thornier challenge. Silos with no apparent effort gets it right.
Enter Bruno (the always amazing Joseph de Cordova). Rumor has it that he killed his wife; problem is no one dares tell him to his face which, as straightshooter Jose immediately points out, is wrong. Doesn't stop Bruno from resenting Jose when the latter stops the former from pressing his too-ardent attentions on hapless Choleng (Mila Ocampo). Bruno's isolation is a festering boil that bursts when Choleng plunges into a steep embankment and the townfolk blame Bruno; he flees for his life, somehow fixating on Jose as the cause of his troubles.
Bruno is beaten; does this justify his seeking vengeance? Jose in turn is wronged; does this justify his seeking out Bruno? The film becomes a treatise on displaced aggression, where logic has no role and those involved become victim or victimizer or both, dictated purely by chance.
Very much like nature, one realizes, recalling the storm that tore down Jose's blossoms. Could monsoons be nature's way of displacing aggression onto us? Or--shifting definitions a little--could life be so meaningless? Bruno--arguably Joseph Cordova's finest role--is lit and shot like a Hammer Studios creature, scar running like a fault line down one cheek. He might represent the town's simmering malice come back to haunt them, might represent Jose's macho sense of honor demanding retribution at any price, might represent (this most horrific of all) nothing, just--nothing. The outlaw as random predator, savagely assaulting the vulnerable for no good reason at all.
People are tested. Jose fails to try understand Bruno and is punished; Bruno crosses a line and is also punished, if anything more severely. Finally there's Miguel, following in Jose's and Bruno's footsteps; afterwards he turns his youthful face heavenwards and pleads forgiveness. Of the three only Miguel realizes the enormity of his act--will his contrition save the youth? Who knows?
The film is impressively cast--Tony Santos' Jose is like lambanog (coconut moonshine) served straight, no chaser; Leroy Salvador's Miguel benefits from the actor's trademark intensity, his aching vulnerability. Rosa Rosal's Maria is deceptively quiet--only after following her for two decades past four childbirths do you realize her quiet is really strength, the kind that roots trees to the ground.
There are flaws--Arturo's role as prodigal son promises to highlight the contrast between urban and rural values, but his story is overshadowed by Bruno's threatening presence; Angelita for all of Zobel's earnest acting remains a plot function, a child that must be threatened and protected, protected and threatened. My biggest problem however is with the title, arguably the most generic imaginable. Even the translations seem uninspired: Blessings of the Land? Nature's Bounty? The Good Earth?
The director is a more modest stylist than gothic master Gerardo De Leon, even more modest than contemporary Lamberto Avellana (who was capable of tremendous filmmaking when the story called for it). Other than the occasional shock cuts with Cordova's scarface looming at the camera, Silos keeps to classic mis-en-scene till the final assault on Maria's household (Bruno again, of course). Suddenly stealth is required, and mother and children pantomime a desperate plan; suddenly Silos is producing pure cinema, ratcheting up suspense with a minimum of effort--the very definition of art.
Occasionally Silos scatters visual gracenotes: a carabao noses a plow's yoke onto its shoulders, ready to work the fields; Miguel and girlfriend sit under a thatched roof, performing romantic comedy as if in a backyard venue; Jose confronts Bruno in a wooded high ground while Miguel prowls below, completely unaware. The last--accomplished in long shot--is a startling image that can possibly provoke laughter (Couldn't he hear the gunfire?); I take it for an audacious distillation of life's endless complexity, unreeling at its own relentless pace.
And then (skip this and the next paragraph if you haven't seen the film!) the harvest. The trees some hundred feet tall, garlanded with lanzones the size of plums; the townsfolk with long-poled baskets, singing as they snag the heavy fruit. Lito (taking his cue from the Virgin Mary) squeezes the tautskinned orb till it bursts yielding jellied flesh: he bites, savoring the tart sweetness (grapefruit crossed with lychee), a smile spreading like sunrise across his face.
But not all is brightness and light: Maria sits in her house away from the jubilation, solemnly counting the money. Yes the harvest is bountiful, more generous than was ever promised--but where is the man who made those promises? With whom will she share the rewards, other than children who will soon leave to raise families of their own? Maria caresses the plow with bittersweet affection--the heavy tool helped realize their dreams but also callused their hands, bowed their backs, added many a careworn line to once-smooth brows. The eponymous blessings are great--but at what cost?
Every country has or should have a film that embodies its profoundest flaws its greatest virtues: Mebhoob Khan's Mother India; Alexander Dozhenko's Earth; John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. I submit that Silos' masterwork is one such film: not just excellent but elemental, not just unique but inimitable despite (or because of) its simplicity, as direct and irresistible as a force of nature.
First published in Businessworld 11.1.19