By Noel Vera

Stairway to heaven

Posted on May 16, 2014

Movie Review
Banaue: Stairway to the Sky
May 17, 4 p.m.
Dream Theater, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Roxas Blvd., Pasay City

(On the occasion of Gerardo de Leon’s yearlong Centennial celebration, there will be a screening of his Banaue: Stairway to the Sky [1975] on Saturday.)

AS INDIVIDUALS Gerardo “Gerry” de Leon and his lead actress Nora Aunor couldn’t be more different: one was a respected lion of Philippine cinema whose career was on the wane; the other was a lightning strike of a pop phenomenon -- from a humble start as winner of a singing contest, Aunor parlayed her golden voice and morena good looks into countless gold singles, a long-running TV variety show, and over 70 movies in eight years.

What Aunor didn’t have despite her meteoric rise was artistic respect, though she did get favorable notices and an acting nomination for her multiple-role performance in the omnibus film Fe, Esperanza, Caridad, the director of the final segment (Caridad) being De Leon. Aunor reportedly liked the experience of working under him so much (the notices and award nomination didn’t hurt) she asked to work with him again, this time on a much more ambitious project -- Banaue: Stairway to the Sky, an action-adventure epic set at the dawn of Philippine history and, at an estimated P1.6 million, arguably the biggest Filipino production ever up to that point. The film would prove to be the master’s final completed feature, an epic that I consider (despite its many flaws) badly underrated today, and in dire need of reappraisal.

Possibly Aunor didn’t quite know what she was doing (after over 70 features, this was her first ever large-scale project), and gave de Leon free rein; he reciprocated by shooting much of the picture with colored gels framing the images, the blurry edges of the screen adding a level of stylization almost unforgivable in its strangeness (though it must be noted that when some contemporary young Turk like Carlos Reygadas does it, the effect is considered brilliantly avant-garde).

There’s also something antediluvian about De Leon at this stage of his career, at the maddeningly solemn way his characters often gaze offscreen, intoning their lines as if it were holy writ (by way of contrast, the slangy dialogue in Lamberto Avellana’s Esperanza portion of the aforementioned omnibus film sounds as current as ever). When you have fresh faces like Aunor’s Banawe, Christopher de Leon’s Sadek and Johnny Delgado’s Pugnoy reciting what sounds like Old Testament text, the disconnect is distracting, to put it mildly.

And yet the film continues to be compulsively watchable, in part because De Leon has lost none of his talent for visual majesty. The terraces are probably the most impressive achievement of prehistoric Filipinos, and as De Leon’s camera travels up and down their sinuous slopes one can’t help but look with awe (you need to ignore the travelogue-style narrator though, speaking in an irritatingly plummy American [presumably because they couldn’t afford someone British] accent).

Throughout the course of the two-hour-plus film (my copy clocks in at 153 minutes; not sure what the official runtime is, and IMDb is unhelpful) De Leon’s camera gives us glimpses of genuine grandeur: a huge boulder tumbles down a slope towards the camera, and as it crashes a wizened arm is thrown up at the screen in agony (Sadek’s parents have just been crushed to death). Heads loom out of one corner of the frame to counterbalance smaller noggins at the opposite corner -- an oddly pleasing demonstration of visual asymmetry -- and a charge of electricity shoots crackling up your spine (“yes -- He Still Has It”).

Where grandeur fails, surrealist horror blooms: a patriarch is decapitated, and his head journeys from one tribe to another as macabre prize (we see the head pronged on split bamboo, slowly liquefying with the course of time). Back home, the patriarch’s wife circles her husband’s seated, festering corpse as she prays for the head’s return (shades of Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, only on a larger scale).

When battle breaks out (which it often does) De Leon shoots head-on, the fighting happening on different planes of action at once. When focused on one-on-one combat De Leon cuts and frames for maximum clarity (like in a dance sequence), the combatants showing a speed and physical prowess impossible to fake with digital enhancement, or unsteady camera, or ADHD editing. “Those are real axes and spears and machete blades they are wielding” you find yourself thinking, “with nothing but loincloth and amulet to keep them from harm!”

Banaue would make a rousing war movie if Aunor’s Banawe didn’t raise the stakes to a whole other level. As De Leon (and writer Toto Belano) conceive her and Aunor incarnates her, Banawe might be the Philippines’ first proto-feminist. She’s no shrinking violet flinching in a corner as her lover Sadek is wounded and her father’s head carried away; she accuses Sadek of cowardice, then organizes a strike force of women armed with little else but combat skills to attack the enemy camp, win her father’s head back. When one of the women complains that she doesn’t have any combat skills, Banawe responds: “It doesn’t take much training to hold a man close, then stab him in the back.”

If Banawe reserves the right to fight for her father’s head, she also reserves the right to choose her lovers -- Christopher de Leon’s Sadek is the obvious choice for mate (the actors married during the film’s production), only the two are separated early on; she meets the fierce Pugnoy, is unimpressed, meets Aruk (Ronaldo Valdez) who whips her -- that got her attention -- only the joke is on Aruk, as he ultimately falls for Banawe (Aunor plays a variation on her celebrity persona, of a woman irresistible to men -- a persona not too far off, as her complicated private life might suggest).

In a way Gerardo de Leon (and Nora Aunor) might be pointing up one aspect of aboriginal culture -- that marital fidelity is not a do-or-die proposition -- for entertainment or even prurient purposes, but I don’t believe it. Banawe meets different men, but she’s sincere in her regard and affection for them; she loves them for their different virtues (and sometimes equally varied flaws), and values what they bring to her life. If they hurt her or she hurts them or they hurt each other, it’s not deliberate but part of the course of life. I might go so far as to say Banawe is pretty sophisticated about her complicated love life (reflecting the actress’ own), showing flexibility, maturity and restraint as needed (maybe not always, but when it counts). I suggest that De Leon (and Aunor) present this aspect of tribal society as an alternative to strict Christian monogamy (a monogamy practiced by many Christians, I might note, more in the breach than observance). Not that one should immediately set aside one’s wife (or husband) to love other women (or men), but that one should at least be aware that there are other ways of thinking than the black-and-white “till death do us part.”

It’s a complicated way to live; at one point a man cries out in exasperation to Banawe: “Who do you love -- me or him?” and she replies: “you -- him -- but more important than either, my people.” Banawe reserves the right to love not just any man but all men -- reserves the right to transcend the merely sensual and strive for the wholly societal. A remarkably complex and thought-provoking thesis to arrive at, considering this was supposed to be just another caveman drama, with a popular Filipina celebrity at its center.

It’s a remarkable achievement in both performance and film production, by a young woman who, at the time of this film’s release, had not quite turned 22. I’d like to imagine that if the real Banawe somehow crossed the thousand years separating her age and ours to watch this film, she’d wholeheartedly approve of what Aunor had achieved -- not just established the long and fruitful career of a daring film producer and amazing actress, but provide an old master one last chance at creating a masterpiece.

(Noel Vera wrote the book Critic After Dark: a Review of Philippine Cinema which is available at http://www.bigozine2.com/theshop/books/NVcritic.htm. For more reviews, visit his blog at http://criticafterdark.blogspot.com.)