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‘Thy Womb’ and ‘El Presidente’

At Large

By Rina Jimenez-David
Philippine Daily Inquirer

“Thy Womb” is not your “typical” Metro Manila Film Festival entry. Indeed, it could be said that the movie, written and directed by Brillante “Dante” Mendoza and which has already won awards in foreign film festivals, is the antithetical MMFF movie. In a festival originally conceptualized as a showcase of the best of Filipino filmmaking but which has since degenerated into a holiday buffet of fantasies, comedies and “feel-good” family drama, “Thy Womb” stands out for its quiet power.

And as many may have predicted, a listing of the first-day grosses of MMFF 2012 has “Thy Womb” trailing all other entries, racking up less than a million pesos. In contrast, “Sisterakas,” a comedy powerhouse of three of local movies’ most bankable comediennes (doesn’t Vice Ganda deserve the “comedienne” tag?) grossed a stunning P40.7 million. On its first day alone.

There’s a lesson here somewhere, and I hope it isn’t that if you want to make money from making movies, comedies that tread on familiar ground (and retread popular lines from other films) is the way to go.

One lesson could be to know one’s audience, to be aware of the particular appeal of one’s work, and target that “niche” audience. Judging from the comments of moviegoers at a commercial showing of “Thy Womb,” it is not everyone’s cup of salabat. Some reactions, including walkouts and loud yawns, didn’t have to be explained. Others, including puzzled frowns and queries along the lines of “That’s it?” warrant some answers.

* * *

And here’s a humdinger of a spoiler. Let me tell you: Just when “Thy Womb” reaches its emotional climax with an event toward which most of the movie had been moving, it abruptly ends. We see the magnificent Nora Aunor, playing the barren wife and midwife Shaleha, looking through an open window onto a vista of open sea and soaring birds, and then … the credits roll.

“Thy Womb” is an ethnographic study of the lives of the Badjao, who live and work on the open seas of Tawi-Tawi and on stilt houses balanced precariously on the water. It tells the story of Shaleha and her husband, Bangas-an

(Bembol Roco) who eke out a living from fishing, vending dried fish, weaving colorful mats and assisting in childbirths, and who search for a younger, fitting second wife for Bangas-an who can give him the child that Shaleha cannot.

The movie moves through the waters and the lanes and houses of Badjao society slowly, choppily, like the rhythm of the waves that soon embeds itself on one’s sensibilities. It lingers on scenes of natural beauty and on the colorful rituals of a Muslim Badjao wedding. And it gives Aunor plenty of room to bring Shaleha—and her sorrow and steely resolve, her faith and fortitude—to powerful realization, especially through those tear-soaked, gleaming eyes.

There’s a melodrama embedded somewhere in “Thy Womb,” and even a message on reproductive health and rights, and I wish Mendoza had relented a bit from his “indie” mindset and allowed ordinary filmgoers a bit more access to the story he wanted to tell. But he gave Aunor a powerful acting vehicle, and if only for that, he deserves much more than a “kulelat” (last place) status in the box-office take.

* * *

It was my “Rizal” seminar professor Jose David Lapuz who summed up for us the “essential tragedy” of Emilio Aguinaldo. And that was: “He lived on, and on, and on, and on…”

The same could be said of “El Presidente,” the movie based on Aguinaldo’s life, which seeks to give a revisionist spin to some of Philippine history’s beloved myths. In doing so, the film goes on, and on, and on, and on…

By the time the movie fades to black with Aguinaldo’s passing at age 95, moviegoers had already been itching for “permission” to walk out. Writer-director Mark Meily could have closed the proceedings with the end of the Philippine-American War, Independence Day after World War II on July 4, or the “restoration” of our Independence Day to June 12, the date chosen by Aguinaldo. But no, Meily seemingly felt compelled to trace Aguinaldo’s life to its very last moment. An exhausting exercise, at least for the audience.

By this time, our emotions had run the gamut: from irritation at the more blatant inaccuracies, to incredulity at the liberties taken; from hilarity that sprung unbidden when screen comedians were spotted among the cast of historical characters; to downright comedy, as when Nora Aunor makes a rather belated appearance as the young second wife of El Presidente, though none of the pounds of makeup on her face and her simpering expression could disguise the fact that she had long moved past middle-age.

* * *

Maybe it’s just my instinctive “Magdiwang” loyalties working. But Cesar Montano as “Supremo” Andres Bonifacio easily upstages Jeorge “E.R.” Estregan who portrays Aguinaldo. So, too for that matter does Christopher de Leon as the much-maligned Antonio Luna.

Or maybe it’s just because Estregan is a lousy actor. His seemingly botoxed features move hardly a millimeter even when great emotion is called for. And does he always have to look like he’s posing for a peso bill? Most disturbing is his rather thin and insubstantial voice. No one now alive knows what Aguinaldo’s real voice was like, but is it too much to ask that heroes sound heroic?

My biggest beef against “El Presidente” is its reliance on art direction and CGI images over character and substance. True, it may have gotten its settings and costumes just right (don’t get me started on makeup), but do we come away from the movie with an insight into the character of Aguinaldo, admittedly one of Philippine history’s most neglected, underrated and unfairly judged heroes? That is the greatest injustice inflicted on its subject by “El Presidente.”

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