Any new production of Nick Joaquin’s A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS FILIPINO: AN ELEGY IN THREE SCENES may pose a challenge to any theater or filmmaker. See, when it was originally written in 1950, Joaquin banked on nostalgia as its clawing theme, consequently stagnating its two main characters as they both cling to a past that will never return. When the Baranggay Theater Guild broadcasted and eventually staged A PORTRAIT in 1955, it came only as a comedy-drama, consequently distancing the deeply-rooted sentimentality of its characters.
And we can only blame ‘time’ for this. The audiences in ’55 were already at a time of change, as we are now. Gone were the days of the Katipunan and its wars. For its spectators, what Candida and Paula look back to, were vague images of a forgotten past – something we tragically cannot identify with anymore.
But Director Loy Arcenas thrives to bring back this nostalgia in ANG LARAWAN (2017). Adapted from the 1997 Filipino-musical adaptation of Joaquin’s elegy, with libretto by National Artist for Literature Rolando Tinio, ANG LARAWAN returns for the Filipino audiences with a score of remembering and advances further through the technology that we have today. It may not be a perfect film, yet Arcenas gives his best to recreate the world of the Marasigans and the uncontrollably changing universe that envelopes them. Yes it lags at some point, and has a couple of lackluster portrayals, this rendition manages to pull itself up with a lot of notable performances and vision that it eventually rises up to a compelling climax even Joaquin would have loved to see.
Circumstances couldn’t be worst for Candida and Paula Marasigan. A global war is at hand and their father, Don Lorenzo el Magnifico, had an accident and crippled himself after falling from the balcony of their dilapidating Intramuros house. Prior to the accident, Lorenzo painted his final masterpiece, which he offered to the two sisters. With bills pilling up, and other siblings pressuring them to leave and sell the house, Candida and Paula strive to sustain their lives while seeing their father’s final work as their only ticket to a quick escape before the war comes knocking at their door.
Ryan Cayabyab’s original music and score for ANG LARAWAN received mixed reviews during its original staging in ’97. I cannot blame the critics. Though its concept was interesting and considerably has its highlights, its musicality failed to sustain the authenticity of its milieu, and lacked a defining score for the stage; one that he missed to take from KATY! THE MUSICAL. At some point, you’d feel as if you’re watching a Metro Pop revue by a bunch of 1940s characters on stage, waiting for the next big crescendo.
And it was quite a mismatch to Tinio’s compelling translation. ANG LARAWAN’s libretto shines with a crisp rendition, teeming with rich vocabularies that even go beyond the pre-war era. Tinio offered the Filipino audiences a new form to Joaquin’s masterpiece, while still deeply touching the roots of the culture of its original milieu.
That is why it’s a relief to see that this version considered having some of the Tinio’s libretto spoken instead of sung, bringing much more truthfulness to the scenes while minimizing the pop-ish tune that seems to be more of a rival than an ally.
Gino Gonzales’ production design fits quite well with Boy Yñiquez photography. With mostly interior scenes, Yñiquez frames Arcenas’ blocks with careful focus, alienating the fast-changing world outside. Worthy to mention, too, is how he obliges to Don Lorenzo’s alienation. Here, we see the patriarch invisibly looming through the depth of a bluish wall, considerably cut-off from the bright hue of the house. As for the portrait, we only see its vivid shades of red and orange through bokeh or from a limiting side.
Consider, too, the bird’s eye view shot of the Conga scene. Here, we see the ensemble moving around the center table to the tune of the Conga. If you look deeper, this ironically metaphors the social animals in a Death Dance, blindly carousing at the present, with utmost denial of an impending war.
Joanna Ampil as Candida shines as the bitter old-maid – careful and paranoid. Ampil has this silent remorse with her present, brought about by an inner guilt she and Paula do not speak of. She may have lacked the proper rhythm and energy in the blackout scene, but compensates so beautifully in her payoff in the third act (Ako’ng Nagkamali). In this scene, Ampil breaks out with an echoing remorse – the kind we seldom see in Philippine Cinema nowadays. Wait for it!!! That alone is already worth the ticket price.
And then we have Rachel Alejandro as Paula, who is quite a beauty, but somewhat off-beat and indisposed. Though we understand that her character blossoms in the end, we still don’t see much transformation. It is unfortunate that in this version, we do not see that expected balance of energy between these two characters, consequently toning down the exceptional dynamics in most of her scenes with Ampil.
Paulo Avelino may have the perfect face for Tony Javier, but lacks the depth and strength of character, consequently denying the audiences of his real motivations. It seems that Avelino is more focused on making himself look good on the screen than explore the character’s motivating forces, which is unfortunate. Though one can fully understand that Tony’s character does not require great singing (he’s mainly detached and distant from the), this doesn’t excuse Avelino to not go deeper from what we simply see on screen.
The ensemble, however, compensates these wants. Robert Arevalo’s Don Perico is totally worth mentioning. Here, Arevalo depicts the guilt of a changed man, offering a familiar kind of regret to a choice made some years ago. In his “Hindi Simple ang Buhay,” he slowly sputters logic and reason, and hear the inner mourning of a past lost. I’d say Arevalo has given ANG LARAWAN the Don Perico it deserves – one that matches the ideal intent of when the character was initially conceived.
Nonie Buencamino and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo both deserve an ovation as Manolo and Pepang – the two elderly siblings of the Marasigans. He sneers and she sighs, he frowns and she jeers. Both cunning, and deceitful, Buencamino and Lauchengco-Yulo masterly represent these perfect foils in the story, brandishing what great antagonists should be.
Ah! And Celeste Legaspi is brilliant as Donya Loleng. She has mastered her character’s motivation, representing the stereotype of a social animal; eager to please, yet thrives on fake sincerity and shallow candor.
New viewers may ask why more than half of the film is inside the Marasigan house. Why, of course. The Marasigan abode symbolizes the battle of our own identities versus the external forces that surround us. ANG LARAWAN is set at the time of change, where Filipino ideals slowly blend with more Western values and cultures. These new influences are the “rats” that Candida catch and kill, slowly creeping and pestering the ideal roots of our own individualities. Our two unyielding heroines thrive to stand firm, resisting these changes through their choices and belligerence.
Candida and Paula’s tale echoes Joaquin’s call to us to remember our roots and treasure our pasts. In this generation of degeneracy, and cultural decadence, this film reminds us how beauty, truth and reverence can still make a difference if only we’ll remain faithful to who we really are. In the midst of social media, political reforms and commercialism, like Candida and Paula, we can stand firm and fight conformity until the very end.
ANG LARAWAN may not be a perfect film, but it is ultimately the perfect choice that we have in this festival. Now that other entries with brainless plots and poorer tastes are attracting bigger audiences in the MMFF box-office, it is but right to make a wiser statement by choosing the better one, and ANG LARAWAN is the ideal bet.
[Defy the world!]