Critic After Dark

Movie Review
Directed by Pio de Castro III

Currently available on KTX.PH

I CONFESS to being biased against Pio de Castro III’s Soltero ever since I heard the premise. A Filipino film about loneliness? Filipinos are some of the most gregarious people in the world — the warmest, friendliest, most hospitable; the (darker side) fondest of gossip, of backbiting, of mob rule. Filipinos, I’d have said, are the least likely to know loneliness, particularly on the big screen; most Philippine cinema depict teeming slums full of corrugated shacks crammed with squatters. Filipinos know the despair of overcrowding, not loneliness.

But that’s not entirely true; one of Brocka’s best-known films (Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag) features lone protagonist Julio Madiaga — the tragedy of a country boy trying to solve the problem of human trafficking (his girlfriend, lured to the big city) all by himself. In Maynila poverty dictates circumstance (girl needs job; boy needs girl), and everyone knows poverty in one form or another.

Then there’s Gil Portes’ Merika with Filipinos learning the true meaning of loneliness, scattered across the vast reaches of the United States. Mila (Nora Aunor in arguably one of her finest performances) isn’t destitute but her situation isn’t unique either — we all know of a friend or relative working abroad, sending home much-needed dollars and, in December, the much-appreciated balikbayan (homecoming) box filled with chocolates and canned goods.

And then there’s Lav Diaz, who in films like Heremias, or Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, depicts loneliness as a near-universal affliction. The sheer weight of his imagery — hours of austere black-and-white digital video — is difficult to resist; you feel like you’ve spent half your life in forced isolation, partly because you have spent what feels like half your life watching someone suffer forced isolation.

Crispin (Jay Ilagan) is no Julio, or Heremias; he’s assistant manager in a bank and owns a condominium along Roxas Boulevard with a view of Manila Bay. His car may be a Beetle — dorky at first glance, nowadays a retro classic — but otherwise he’s a dependable, desirable bachelor no girl in her right mind could possibly resist.

Except they do, or don’t flock to his side. There’s a forcefield of willed chastity about him that warns women: “stay away” (those who try are gently rejected). Turns out Crispin still holds a torch for former girlfriend Christina (Rio Locsin), later makes sidelong glances at his new boss RJ (Chanda Romero); settling for anyone less (anyone else?) would mean compromise, and Crispin is too pure of heart to do that.

There’s a sense that Crispin is the only real character in the film, with the others acting as facets and variations of his loneliness — Mona Lisa’s alcoholic landlady drinks herself to sleep; Terrie Legarda’s Bong leaves her husband because he’s never home; Dick Israel’s Teddy moans about exile to the Middle East. Boy Noriega, who wrote the screenplay, is careful to wrap Crispin in a cloak of virtue —  he’s a nice guy, and everyone makes it a point to declare him a nice guy — but there’s an unspoken narcissism to Crispin, the sense that his failure to maintain a meaningful relationship forces him to see the people the way he sees himself: as loners struggling and failing to deal with themselves as lifelong companions.

Christina is a special case, not just the object of Crispin’s affections but his mirror image. She too is intelligent and sensitive; she too pines for someone unattainable (a married man); she too has love to offer, and a tendency to self-sacrifice that reeks of martyrdom. Whenever Crispin comes over to her apartment he confides his troubles to her and she responds with sound advice; their moments together would feel like plot function — the visited sage dispensing wisdom to her acolyte —  only Rio Locsin speaks with a limpid simplicity hard to resist.

When Christina finally confronts Crispin about their relationship (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film!) — sitting by a corner table, the camera alternating closeups between the two (Crispin lit from the left, Christina from the right, the visual scheme highlighting their opposing views) — Christina reveals herself to be a master at verbal jiu-jitsu, able to argue the impossibility of their continued relationship by turning Crispin’s best qualities against him (“You’re too kind; it’s suffocating; your kindness could kill me”). Crispin’s no idiot; he points out inconsistencies in her argument, to which she deftly responds by owning them (“I’m not running away from you, I’m running away from myself”) then pressing the attack (“Part of this is your fault too”). Christina delivers the coup de grace with understated skill: “I’m not worthy of your love”; Crispin can only respond with the resigned expression of a bull facing a skilled torero. Why hasn’t Christina considered a career in law? But I forget — she’s a single mother with few financial resources, the main one being an already-married man.

When it’s RJ’s turn to confront Crispin, the filmmakers take a different tack. RJ is a sophisticate not a saint; she agrees to meet at Imelda Marcos’ infamous Manila Film Center (“the only place people can talk with clear heads,” Crispin explains), climb the keyboardlike steps, walk among its Pantheon columns — the perfect setting, if you like, for a modern Greek tragedy.

Where Mr. Noriega’s words drive the earlier scene, here the writer cedes control to Mr. De Castro, who keeps the imagery striking, the drama at arm’s length. Crispin watches RJ lean against a stone wall, her shadow stretching to the left as she explains herself; in an interview Chanda perceptively points out that the shadow likely represents RJ’s darker side, a side she reveals to Crispin in the hope that he might understand.

Many a critic (again, skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen this!) has praised the film for its early attempt at depicting a closeted lesbian; I remember Crispin’s response when he finally realizes what RJ has been trying to say all along: “I don’t believe it! You can change, I know you can!” RJ can only smile: Crispin subscribes to the traditional view, that gay folk are merely making lifestyle choices. RJ knows better — it’s not a lifestyle but a life; switching sexual orientation is about as easy as swapping out heads.

Mr. De Castro and Mr. Noriega end the film with Crispin alone (again) before the camera, writing a letter to his brother. Reading the letter’s contents out loud helps sketch the outlines of his life to date — he’s working harder than before, he’s taken up his hobbies again, he’s involved with his friends again. Gradually the reading becomes a monologue and his gaze turns from letter to camera — towards us, the audience; the matter-of-fact update becomes a confessional on the state of Crispin’s soul.

One wants to ask: do Mr. De Castro and Mr. Noriega know about loneliness? Mr. Noriega seems to know the difference between a man with many caring friends and one with a lifelong companion by his side; Mr. De Castro, for his part, directs not just with sensitivity and intelligence and grace, but with a grasp of the kind of stillness — of airless silence — true loneliness can inspire.

And then there’s Crispin’s face. Jay Ilagan in that final scene looks straight at the camera with unnerving directness. He appears to be at peace —  but it’s a hard-won peace, a survivor’s peace, the peace of a man who has traveled through miles of parched desert. This is a man suspended between heaven and hell, suffering the uncertainty of such a suspension, growing stronger from his suffering. Do Mr. Noriega, Mr. De Castro, and Mr. Ilagan know loneliness? What do you think?