War of the sexes
Tikoy Aguiluz's Tatarin, based not so much on Nick Joaquin's famous short story as on the play he later adapted for stage, is about the oldest and longest-running war known to man, the war between the sexes. Joaquin's problem then was how to make this war relevant again to jaded audiences (the play was written in 1975); his solution was to set the play in the 1920s, when male-dominated Western Culture was just beginning to tremble. Aguiluz's adoption of Joaquin's stratagem is, I think, a smart move--this way he captures the very roots of the war (or at least of the 20th century edition of the war) as waged by our grandparents and great-grandparents; he photographs the combatants at a time when the battle is still urgent and raw, the stakes desperately high.
And the battle lines are drawn, of course, around a married couple--Don Paeng and Dona Lupe Moreta (Edu Manzano and Dina Bonnevie), on the evening of the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist, on the third night of the "Tatarin"--a pagan ritual where for three days out of the year women hold ascendancy over men.
Can't think of many other Filipino filmmakers better than Aguiluz to evoke the living past--especially in a production like this, where immersion in a long-gone age is crucial to the success of the film. Combining the resources of Viva Studios (which are usually poured into glamour productions) with his keen documentary filmmaker's eye, Aguiluz (with the help of production designer Dez Bautista) evokes a detailed world of the Moretas--from the flourmill that produces their dried noodles, to the 1920s-style kitchen hard at work on dinner, to the luxuriously appointed family mansions with their remarkable painted ceilings. And it's not just a matter of budget; it's the intelligence to pick out this particular detail, the wit to shoot from that particular angle--then the judiciousness to keep the shots brief so that you only glance at the images, are left wanting more.
But more than the ability to recreate a historical period, Aguiluz (again, with the help of writer Ricky Lee and editor Mirana Medina) is able to streamline Joaquin's play, focus on the struggle between Don Paeng and Dona Lupe. The three have tinkered with Joaquin's married couple, made delicate adjustments, crucial revisions--the Moretas, for one, have lost all warmth and affection for each other, where in the play they still show signs of tenderness. Don Paeng has become a psychologically immobile, sexually impotent monster (kudos to Edu Manzano for the courage to portray such an unlikable man) while Dona Lupe (Dina Bonnevie, in possibly the performance of her career) has become more submissive, more withdrawn (the better to highlight coming change).
Then there's the dialogue, which has been pruned, made less explicit, more functional than decorative. Besides pruning, Aguiluz manages to locate drama in the moments when words are not spoken--through shots that encapsulate in a single image the tension, like when Dona Lupe's foot is kissed by Guido (Carlos Morales) with Don Paeng watching from a balcony. Don Paeng, the shot tells us, is ascendant by virtue of his balcony, but also rendered remote and helpless by distance.
Then the "Tatarin" ritual itself. Moved offstage in the play, here the ritual takes center stage: a wordless, ten-minute orgy of pulsing drumbeat, flaring torches, convulsing women. Aguiluz wanted the sense of a real location turned theater set and got it--the dance, staged at the foot of a balete tree, feels nightmarishly surreal. And obscene--though nudity is at a minimum, there is no lack of lewdness to the drumming and dancing, which at times becomes frank rutting. "Pagan" is an inadequate term for what happens at the foot of the tree.
Tatarin feels more lighthearted than Aguiluz's earlier works, if only because he doesn't end the film with a life-or-death situation. More, it's the first really comic film Aguiluz has ever directed, and he handles the material with lightness and vigor.
Best of all in my book Aguiluz (and in no small way his lead actress Bonnevie) capture something of the flavor of Joaquin: that overripe overwhelming sense of humid sensuality, the corseted beauty whose true power is unleashed, the war rephrased and restated, to reflect in some small way the ongoing unending conflict.
First published in Cinemaya Magazine, Issue # 54-55, Winter - Spring 2002; revised 9/11/20