Saith the Lord

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Venganza (Vengeance, 1958)
Directed by Manuel Conde
Available on Mike de Leon’s
Citizen Jake Vimeo site

PRECIOUS little has been written online or on print about Manuel Conde save a book by Nicanor Tiongson (which I haven’t been able to read, unfortunately, and is currently unavailable). The filmmaker is best known for his comic Juan Tamad (Lazy John) film series, and for writing, producing, directing a small scale biopic on Genghis Khan that depicted the eponymous Mongol prince (also played by Conde) as an ambitious, charmingly inventive runt — the film competed in the 1952 Venice International Film Festival, the first ever Filipino film to do so.

Venganza (Vengeance, 1958) which Mike de Leon has made available on his Vimeo website (sans subtitles, alas) isn’t as well-known and isn’t the Conde we are familiar with: a straightforward drama about the peaceful Simoun’s (Mario Montenegro) vow of revenge when bandits led by Martinico (Eusebio Gomez) and Peklat (Scar, played by the always memorable Joseph Cordova) terrorize his village and cause the death of his newly wedded wife Pilar (Perla Bautista).

Martinico is the ostensible villain and a rotten dastard to the core but Simoun’s true adversary is in my book the officiating priest (and Pilar’s brother), Padre Roman (Carlos Padilla, Jr.). As the village’s religious leader, Roman is a force to reckon with; the folk bow and defer to his judgment and while he couldn’t keep the bandits from raiding Simoun’s wedding, he does manage to check the bandits’ (and Simoun’s) more violent instincts.

Padre Roman can’t stop the worst from happening but that doesn’t stop him from attempting to stop worse from happening: when Simoun takes on the dark portentous glower that is apparently the Montenegro trademark (we saw that same expression in Avellana’s earlier Lapu-Lapu) he doesn’t hesitate to remind Simoun that only God has the right to judge and mete out punishment; later when they see each other again Roman doesn’t hold back in condemning Simoun’s intention of using Martinico’s new bride against the bandit, recruiting an entire village of Igorots to help in his scheme. Roman is a common figure in Filipino films, the indomitable parish priest, who glides through many a Filipino melodrama insisting on the infallibility of church dogma, on occasion (not very often) pausing to help the protagonist in some small way (maybe one of the more interesting variations on this figure I’ve seen was in — again Avellana, but I was taking a dive into his filmography at the time — Anak Dalita, where Vic Silayan’s Father Fidel plays a [probably unintentional] ambiguous role, working with both hero and villain and deftly prevaricating on the moral issues).

Here Roman stands firmly on the side of God with regards to vengeance, and he comes off as dull and self-righteous. You wonder if the effect isn’t deliberate: Simoun’s bloodthirst is so much more compelling, not to mention sexy, that you tend to tune Roman out (so does Simoun, who at this point can’t really hear much beyond the pulsebeat in his ear); later, when Simoun is further along his plot and his treatment of the aforementioned bride seems cool if not downright sinister, Roman’s words feel more reasonable and we’re readier to listen. The two men represent familiar tropes in the standard-issue revenge drama; what I think Conde brings to the genre is an evolving, surprisingly nuanced (if ultimately conventional) view of both men and their positions on revenge.

Conde directs with assurance and grace; like Avellana he keeps a tight rein on his camera, bringing out his visual virtuosity only when called for. The wedding party from the bandits’ entry to their ultimate demands is a marvel of escalating tension: Peklat points his gun at the band and demand they play a tango, and from the musicians’ reluctance and the villagers’ shocked expressions you know this is a genuinely scandalous moment; Peklat delivers a satirical speech (a parody of hurt feelings because the villagers hadn’t invited them to the party) and watching the tense glances between Simoun, Ramon, and Pilar, you know they know how much danger they’re in. Later we see Simoun standing by the grave with a black band round his left arm; the camera pans down to his shoes, dissolves to later, and we see the same shoes and armband, only Simoun is seated. Time has passed and Simoun has taken the weight off his feet but little else has changed: he still mourns Pilar, still wants to exact bloody justice.

Simoun stalks Peklat, who leads a band of men delivering Martinico’s bride; when he improvises a delayed-action device and sets it off, the bride’s head jerks up to the camera and we see the visage of Carmencita Abad — startlingly beautiful, faintly Chinese — for the first time (we never really notice Conde concealing her face because the director never makes a big deal of it; the reveal is a nice shock effect). When Martinico has his enemies bound and helpless around him, Simoun deftly uses the one subject he’s familiar with — a man’s thirst for revenge — to force a one-on-one duel with the bandit leader, a genuinely tense confrontation using itaks, or short swords with blades weighted at the end to lop off tree branches or human limbs (Gomez swings his in wide circles like a helicopter blade; Montenegro keeps his pointed matter-of-factedly forward; Conde uses medium shots and long takes, the better to see the action and the combatants’ skill with blades). Simoun’s gambit is a clever comment on the tunnel-vision nature of vengeance — that a more mentally nimble opponent can use your single-mindedness against you — though of course Roman has to step in at the last minute to deliver the last word on the subject. A surprisingly engaging film, from a master Filipino filmmaker.