What’s good, what’s bad, what’s meh at the MMFF

By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

Movie review
Ang Larawan
Directed by Loy Arcenas

ANG LARAWAN, directed by Loy Arcenas, is the musical film adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s 65-year-old play Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. It is more accurately a portrait of Filipino society itself, warts and all, than of any artist and his idiosyncrasies, and yet it is a thing of beauty in itself. The play’s longevity may be due to the currency of its great truths about the power of the patriarchy and the cruelty of our social class structures. Its unflinching depiction of the human condition remains relevant. Like a precious jewel, different facets are illuminated in its every incarnation, whether as the original English Portrait or several Filipino translations as Larawan, or in Spanish as Retrato. Each one shines, and casts its own light.

Over the decades, Joaquin’s original stage play has morphed into varied iterations such as the 1965 Lamberto Avellana film of the play itself. The 2002 Sambalikhaan staging even had men playing the disempowered leads: Anton Juan as Candido and the late Behn Cervantes as Pablito. Most recently, it was a three-hour Filipino stage musical with a libretto by Rolando Tinio and music by Ryan Cayabyab. That is the version adapted for the Arcenas film.

However Ang Larawan is more than a mere musical. Its soaring sound track reaches the heights of grand opera, beyond the more plebeian Hollywood-type song and dance extravaganzas, or our own Filipino sarsuela. The delightful opening tertulia song reminds us of a time when poetry mattered. “Kay Sarap ng Buhay Nung Araw” has the elegiac melancholy of kundiman. The setting in pre-World War II Intramuros is essential, for that was a gracious period in our history whose passing we must remember, to remind ourselves of what we might be in our future.

The Marasigan’s with their greedy bickering, and bullying of their weaker members, are still a relatable model of modern family dysfunction. Patriarchy is portrayed in all its terrible glory even as the patriarch himself is mostly off-screen. Though unseen, he holds his two youngest daughters Candida (Joanna Ampil) and Paula (Rachel Alejandro) in thrall. Tellingly, their fondest memory of themselves is as eternally prepubescent girls, dressed in virginal white for the Feast of the La Naval. The middle aged Paula wears an adult version of a sailor dress, while Candida dresses in dull shapeless sacks. Filipino social mores laud their self-sacrifice as noble while at the same time, looking down upon their genteel poverty.

The complexity of Ang Larawan’s characters makes them come alive and keeps them real. The two older Marasigan siblings: Manolo (Nonie Buencamino) and Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo), members of the alta sociedad, may seem like the heavies with their money-grubbing pragmatism. Yet they are not cardboard villains. Manolo is painfully torn: an alternately impatient, callous, and compassionate brother; a frivolous playboy with the ambiguous legacy of being the only (albeit estranged) son of a temperamental genius of a father. Lauchengco-Yulo gives a formidably intelligent reading of Pepang who must importune her husband for money to support her father and sisters — an obligation which Manolo continually fails.

Tinio’s witty libretto preserves the essence of Joaquin’s original play, and then some. There is an added hilarious riff by La Elsa Montes (Zsa Zsa Padilla), Queen of the Conga, whose only take-away after viewing the Marasigan masterpiece is to pattern her new costume after a Greek toga. It is a sly commentary on how popular culture trivializes high art. Robert Arevalo as Don Perico, gives another powerful, standout performance, reminiscent of his turn as the wronged older brother in Sakada (1976; directed by Behn Cervantes). He was the erstwhile poet who sold out to become a factotum of the regime.

Celeste Legaspi as Doña Loleng, the senator’s wife and society doyenne, is a force of nature, and in great voice. There is the risk she will take over the room, but all the performers manage to hold their own. Dulce lends her richly textured contralto to Doña Upeng while Nanette Inventor is a spunky and vibrant Doña Irene. Even the “minor” supporting roles shine, just as smaller gemstones in the setting of a precious jewel, for truly Joaquin’s Portrait as Ang Larawan is among our national treasures.

The polish and naturalness of the performances is the result of a year’s worth of rehearsals, many while in their costumes. Legaspi as one of the producers forbade ad libs. Only another national artist (Rolando Tinio for Theater and Literature) was given the imprimatur by the original author (Nick Joaquin for Literature) to adapt his work thusly. Amazingly, the director shot the film in just 15 days, though post-production took another year.

Ang Larawan’s more restrictive PG rating by the MTRCB is a puzzlement. Surely, it was not the tame, sexual innuendo of the shrill showgirls’ (Cris Villongco and Aicelle Santos) Betty Boop bodabil version of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” The noontime variety TV shows offer far racier fare. This remake of a classic ought to be seen by a wider audience. It should not be treated as a pearl cast before swine and trodden into the mud. Given the chance, our people are capable of so much more than the usual lame, inane film fodder. They also deserve better.

MTRCB Rating: PG