Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Moral (Marilou Diaz-Abaya, 1982)


(Available on iTunes and KTX.PH

(Warning: narrative and plot twists discussed in explicit detail)

Marilou Diaz-Abaya's Moral (1982) bends stereotypes from the start, beginning where most romantic comedies end, with a marriage. Maritess (Anna Marin) is in the process of being wedded to (welded to?) Dodo (Ronald Bregendahl) when Joey (Lorna Tolentino) stumbles late into the church, fumbles her way to a seat, giggles at inappropriate moments; Kathy (Gina Alajar) sings a heartfelt song but--isn't she off-key? When the ceremonies end it's not bride and groom running out from under a shower of flung rice but bride and friend and friend and friend--Maritess and Joey and Kathy and Sylvia (Sandy Andolong) linked arm to arm, camera retreating before them as they march into the world.  

We follow Maritess as she settles into the role of wife and mother in a large house ("it's over fifty years old!") and even larger family (children and infants crawling all over). We learn about her friends--Kathy is an aspiring singer whose ambition exceeds her ability; Sylvia is an education major turned teacher separated from her husband. Joey is the wild child that links the four; she can never tell where she'll spend the night: in one of her friends' spare bedrooms, at her mother's, or with one of the many men she has slept with throughout her life. 

Maritess chides Joey for her lifestyle: "Women aren't supposed to be promiscuous, only men." Despite its reproachful tone the rebuke perfectly describes Joey: not as an aggressive man with breasts and vagina attached but as a woman who never really thought in such distinctions. Ironic twist: she does care for one man--political activist Jerry (Michael Sandico) who's near-unattainable, being committed to the idea of political commitment. 

Diaz-Abaya is director of this ensemble piece but it's impossible to discuss the film without mentioning the rest of her ensemble, not just the actors (who are superb) but writer Ricky Lee. I've seen my share of Lee films, some which I've liked some which alas I haven't; this may be his best, and strong evidence to mark Lee a co-auteur. The writer-director team coming off of the success of Brutal (one of Lee's several reworkings of Kurosawa's Rashomon) wanted to team up again using the previous feature's two stars--Gina Alajar and Amy Austria--in a story involving two singers, one with talent one without. But Austria left the production, and Lee reworked the script into a story of four friends instead.

The film is structured to appear formless but you can see the thinking that went into the script: Kathy's story lampoons showbiz; Sylvia's explores changing definitions of femininity and homosexuality; Maritess' deals with the traditional role of women as selfless wife and mother. Joey I suspect represents '80s Filipino feminism, a rebellion in search of a cause--she's just not sure what. That's why she's attracted to Jerry: he knows what he wants is working passionately to achieve it. 

That's the agenda, and Lee and Diaz-Abaya work to fudge the outlines of that agenda, distract us from looking too closely. The dialogue helps, the film featuring some of Lee's funniest lines, including a discourse on underwear ("You can tell a man from his briefs."). You imagine Diaz-Abaya like Fellini taping a reminder to the viewfinder on her camera: "remember this is a comedy." Diaz-Abaya takes her cue from restless Joey, jumping from one storyline to the next in apparent random order; she cuts (with help from husband Manolo Abaya and Marc Tarnate) with the no-nonsense air of a comic filmmaker keeping the pace brisk, the audience off-balanced. Lee further contributes by throwing the women curveballs: Jerry introduces Joey to his fiance Nita (Mia Gutierrez); Sylvia realizes that her husband Robert (Juan Rodrigo) has a boyfriend Celso (Lito Pimentel) who dances in a nightclub; Kathy--well she's in showbiz which is nothing but curveballs (that's why industry folk are so paranoid); Maritess slowly realizes the kind of family she's married into and what's expected of her (she's basically a two-legged factory expected to churn out babies).

Helps (again) that Lee's curveballs are themselves fascinating. Lito's Celso is a languid zen hedonist living in an airy apartment paradise: tall grilled-iron windows draped with ribbony curtains, the naked concrete walls ornamented with wood carvings and Robert's paintings. Celso serves Sylvia brewed coffee (this before Starbuck started its worldwide expansion campaign) and casually mentions a supplier of coffee beans in Batangas as if talking about a supplier of quality cocaine. He insists that he and Robert are partners, suggesting a more enlightened arrangement than in a traditional marriage, though when he breaks down their respective duties--he handles the shopping and cooking, Robert the house repairs and rent--you sense a more exploitative slant. Celso seems to consider himself an artist performing live onstage and living on his own terms (he loves Robert, but refuses to stay faithful); Sylvia looks on, appearing both enlightened and overwhelmed, and not a little envious. 

Then there's Joey's mother Maggie (Laurice Guillen) who had been forced to give birth to Joey at fifteen and abandoned husband and child not much later. She's had a tumultuous life to put it mildly, though I don't see anyone sending her a Mother's Day card anytime soon (she used to slap Joey for calling her 'mother' instead of 'Maggie'). Script and film seem to want to position Maggie as a villain, but Guillen plays her with a defiant dignity; like Celso her behavior may be questionable, but she insists in her own quiet way on her right to exist. 

I did mention Moral bends rather than breaks stereotypes; it has its predecessors including Ishmael Bernal's Aliw (79) and Manila by Night (80); Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (72); Kenji Mizoguchi's Street of Shame (56); even Gregory la Cava's Stage Door (37). What Diaz-Abaya and Lee add to a small but diverse library is a royal flush of performances, an understated comic sensibility, the beautifully silvered yet naturalist glow of 70's and early '80s Filipino cinema (brought about, again, by Manolo Abaya--there's an argument to be made that he along with Lee and Diaz-Abaya are co-auteurs). 

There's predecessors and then there's politics, and looking back almost thirty years later the film's seem surprisingly dated--surprising because I remember it to be a pioneering landmark. I've mentioned Maggie being set up as a villain (and submit Guillen's performance mitigates that); Joey in turn is apparently punished for her promiscuity--she's knocked up (doesn't know by who), goes around seeking money for an abortion. Maritess turns her down ("what you're doing is wrong"); Maggie hems and haws ("you'll only destroy your life"). Joey's choice is ultimately taken from her--she has a miscarriage--and you wonder if Lee or Diaz-Abaya made the decision to unceremoniously pull the plug on her dilemma (I suspect Diaz-Abaya--she has both liberal beliefs and a strong Catholic faith and the struggle between the two forces plays out continuously in her films). 

In one of the film's most iconic moments Diaz-Abaya gives us an image of the four friends goofing off, improvising lines and bits of business in a lovely example of cinema verite; offscreen we hear Maree Osorio's voice over George Canseco's sad guitar chords asking: what has happened to this new generation? It's not as if the parents are at fault, Osorio insists; they offered plenty of guidance (I think of Maggie and do a double-take)--so what went wrong? Heavy-handed judgmental words, more appropriate to traditional '50s and '60s melodramas--only I don't see four youths led astray, more like four young women enjoying each other's company. Was Diaz-Abaya being ironic? Was she being sincere? One wonders, feels confused, thinks the turbulence created by crisscrossing undercurrents is more interesting than any mere unambiguous coherently crafted work of progressive art.  

Maritess' case in particular sticks to the craw: she's neglected and ignored, even sexually assaulted (she refused Dodo sex and he didn't take 'no' for an answer). She leaves him, but later agrees to a meeting to negotiate a more equitable relationship. I can see the point to her capitulation--there's no divorce in the Philippines, legal separation is difficult to obtain, and marital rape was only outlawed in 1997--but would have liked to have seen more ambivalence, even bitterness, in Marin's performance. She arguably has the hardest life of the four, with the least satisfying resolution. 

With Gina Alajar's Kathy, Lee and Diaz-Abaya are on more comfortable comic ground. Kathy is hilariously clueless; every time she opens her mouth you cringe in anticipation. In an interview she articulates her new Hare Krishna/Catholic mishmash of a faith, responding to the journalist's pointed questions: "some call me Kathy, some Katherine, still others Kate, and when I was young Tate; if I can have four names why can't God?" Kathy does have a nicely played scene where she's in bed with the single most corrupt figure she's encountered so far (Jess Ramos' corpulent Mr. Suarez) and asks him straight: do I have talent? Thing may be going her way but Kathy after all is said and done values honesty over showbiz achievement, and the poignancy of the moment is made sharper by all the comedy that came before. 

When you think about it what distinguishes an artist from a mere practitioner? Truth I think: the desire to recognize it, perhaps express it, even celebrate it. If Kathy does value truth above all then I say she's taken her first step away from the rest of devout humanity towards that smaller far more select group of idolaters. Who knows? Someday she might finish the journey. 

Extra points to Lee and Diaz-Abaya for having Alajar's Kathy attend a showbiz party trying to cozy up to Amy Austria, her former Brutal co-star, playing herself.

My favorite moment is likely the conclusion to Joey's storyline (if anyone's the protagonist it's her, the Portnoy of Filipino feminism, comically neurotic and impossibly stubborn). When Jerry suddenly pops up to ask Joey to take care of his newly pregnant wife while he joins the rebels, Joey accepts; she's still that much in love with him. Joey's short with Nita at first, but Nita fights back with modesty ("don't mind me too much") and an underhanded guilt-trip campaign ("Don't bother with that! I have someone come in twice a week" "That's okay, it gives me something to do"). Joey comes home one day and Nita gets up to fix her supper; in the midst of preparation Nita drops the bomb: "Jerry's dead." 

It's a great scene and, I suspect, Lee's (he had once been arrested and enjoyed the full hospitality of Marcos' intelligence officers), but Diaz-Abaya stages  with matter-of-fact directness and husband Manolo lights and shoots with beguiling simplicity. Nita continues to prepare supper as she recounts how Jerry was captured tortured killed, the white kitchen tiles suggesting her freshly canonized status as political activist and gravid mother; Joey on the other hand sits in the darkest corner of the studio apartment, the gathering shadows suggesting the depths of her despair. The scene is sad but also horrifyingly funny: how can Joey possibly compete? Nita doesn't just have Jerry's love she carries Jerry's child and is getting ready (her bag all packed) to continue Jerry's legacy. The only thing left for Joey to do is hug Nita and unborn child tight--it's the only way she can bid Jerry a proper farewell. 

What else to say? Moral is flawed yes but fascinatingly so, borne I suspect from the director's inner contradictions; it's an ensemble film about an ensemble of friends and while not as radical as I remember is still a well-rendered example of the genre. Great film? I thought so, and watching this restored version I'm happy to say still do. 

First published in Businessworld 6.11.21


Lorie Alvarado said...

Awesome, insightful film review 👍🏼

Noel Vera said...

Thank you!