Thursday, February 18, 2021

A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (Lamberto Avellana, 1965)

A thousand words

Confession: when I saw Lamberto Avellana's revered film adaptation of Nick Joaquin's classic play Portrait of the Artist as Filipino some mumble mumble years ago I wasn't thrilled. It was an adaptation of a stage play that at first glance looked unapologetically stagy, complete with well-timed entrances and exits, and its actors spoke a Spanish-accented English I'd never heard in a Filipino film before. It was filmed in an understated style, and after the sharp angles and looming closeups and deep shadows of Gerry de Leon's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo felt like a step backwards, a middlebrow work of art.

Viewing this 2014 restored version--financed partly by the Film Development Council of the Philippines, partly by Mike De Leon (son of the film's producer Manuel De Leon), painstakingly rehabilitated by L'Immagine Ritrovata)--was an eyeopener: the image crisper, the mono sound cleaner, the film's style revealed to be not simplistic but pellucid, and essential in expressing its theme.

Is much of the film confined to a single location, the longtime residence of the Marasigans? Yes, but it's a magnificent residence: the 150 year old Yatco-Yaptinchay house in Binan, Laguna, now gone, an oldstyle mansions with massive stone foundations, dark narra staircases, soaring ceilings, lambent windows, intricately carved furniture--if I had to be confined I wouldn't mind being confined here. Avellana's camera peers into rooms and allow the furnitures to speak for themselves, witnesses to a vanished age. This is Avellana's response to Hitchcock telling a two-hour story in a confined space, less exhibitionist but drenched in nostalgia--Mike Velarde's melancholy score setting the mood, the camera barely able to rouse itself from dreamy lethargy. The lethargy however is a pose; the camera pans and glides and reframes its characters, draws in close to overhear snatches of conversation, but does so unobtrusively--you must pay attention to know it's doing anything (the crisp imagery helps). Avellana's camera is a technologically modern intruder to an old shrine--the family patriarch is said to have known the heroes of the Filipino revolution--but so modest a presence you'd think it belonged with the antique furnitures. 

As for the English--Filipino films have used Tagalog dialogue for so long so often it's jarring to hear otherwise. Avellana's own Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (Huk in a New Life) is narrated by the director himself in English; recently there have been films in Cebuano (Damgo ni Eleuteria (Dream of Eleuteria)) and Ilonggo (Yanggaw (Affliction)), a welcome development. But the English in  Portrait makes sense: this was forty years into the American occupation and Nick Joaquin along with a number of his contemporaries (NVM Gonzalez; Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero; Jose Garcia Villa) spoke and wrote the language. It's a melodic English, with cadences and pronunciation distinctly Castillan, decades away from the flatter, more Hollywood idiom my generation grew up speaking. 

The plot of Joaquin's play revolves around the eponymous painting hung in the Marasigan home, Don Lorenzo's final masterpiece: Retrato del Artista como Filipino--a huge canvas depicting a grimfaced Aenas piggybacking an even grimmer Anchises away from the burning city of Troy. Don Lorenzo (Pianing Vidal) has bequeathed the work to his two unmarried daughters Candida (Daisy Avellana) and Paula (Naty Crame-Rogers) for them to keep or sell as they see fit. A boarder they have taken into their house, Tony Javier (the reptilian Conrad Parham), has found an American buyer willing to pay $2,000 (around $37,500 in 2020 dollars). Will Candida and Paula sell the painting--sell out in effect--or will they somehow earn enough money teaching Spanish and piano lessons to keep themselves afloat? Will they give in to pressure from their more successful siblings Pepang (Sarah Joaquin) and Manolo (Nick Agudo)--put Don Lorenzo in hospital care, sell the house, move out?

Pepang and Manolo represent the ever-practical, constantly disapproving middle class, who see their older sisters as hopelessly out-of-touch eccentrics; they reveal their true motives in a gem of a comic scene where they wander the house squabbling over the furniture. Tony Javier and Bitoy (Vic Silayan) are the sleeker more predatory younger generation, not above using old friendships (Candida and Paula once babysat Bitoy) or sexual appeal (Paula has a simmering crush on Tony) to pry apart the spinsters. 

Daisy Avellana's Candida stands defiantly above all; she's Joaquin's more demure Blanche DuBois, his faded heroine trying to hold the tatters of her dignity together. When Senator Don Perico (Koko Trinidad) pays the pair a visit to present the gentle but insistent argument that they can better care for their father and themselves by selling the house, Candida responds with a grand appeal to Don Perico's younger poet self, composing alongside Don Lorenzo so many years ago. The chastened senator admits that Candida and her father (note the inclusion) stand 'contra mundum'--against the world. She's what Don Lorenzo in his prime must have been like, transforming the crumbling mansion into an alternate reality where time stays frozen while the world flows past. She recalls Philip K. Dick's John Isidore, a social outcast sealed into his dusty apartment with piles of 'kipple' (his word for useless junk) about him--only Candida strikes a more defiant pose and celebrates the accumulating kipple. 

Naty Cramer-Rogers' Paula acts as Candida's foil, the more obedient more childlike sibling who takes all her cues from her (presumably) older sister--all the more reason to mark her presence, as she quietly and with childlike simplicity breaks out of the sisters' state of suspended animation and takes direct action. 

At one point Senator Don Perico gazes at the old man's picture and explicitly articulates its meaning: that Don Lorenzo can only save himself, there is no next generation to carry his burden for him--as sharply poignant a metaphor for an artist's loneliness as anything in Philippine literature, and a sentiment Joaquin himself must have often shared. The moment seemed too on-the-nose, till I realized what Don Perico wasn't saying: that the portrait was of Don Lorenzo and his younger self, no sign of the children and elusive wife. That this is also a portrait of self-absorption--a necessary element I suppose for great artists. That Don Lorenzo hangs the self-portrait like an albatross on the necks of his two daughters, condemning them to a living death. That Joaquin with this play reveals more than what he may have intended, about an artist's quest for martyred immortality, and the cost of achieving that immortality. 

Final note, about the film's fairly literal style: most stagings of Portrait have the actors peering up at an empty frame, leaving Don Lorenzo's painting to the audience's imagination. Avellana stretches a canvas across the wall, towering over viewers. The work itself (conceived by Maning P. de Leon) looks impressive, apparently advance of art in the '40s (not worldwide, not with Picasso around, but in the Philippines at least). The literalness grates--why show the painting? Why not use that angled shot where Avellana's camera gazed down on awestruck viewers? The payoff I suspect comes in the film's climax (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film!) when childlike Paula does what she feels she must do, take a knife to the canvas. Her blade tearing at the old man's precious masterwork has the satisfyingly transgressive sound of a maiden's underwear being torn apart--an effect you won't get with an unseen painting. 

Still perhaps not my favorite Avellana (that would be Badjao, and the unpretentiously pleasurable Pag-asa) but a great film, and for once I fully felt the greatness. 

In memory of Naty Crame-Rogers

First published in Businessworld 2.12.21

No comments: