By Noel Vera

Richard Abelardo’s Mutya ng Pasig (Pearl of the Pasig, 1950) at first glance plays like a musical version of Wuthering Heights (Doña Sisang’s LVN Pictures was known for its many musicals): the star-crossed lovers separated (this time due to a false accusation and a prison term); the woman marrying another; the death in mid-narrative; the man haunted by ghosts of memories past.

Mercedes (Rebecca Gonzalez) and Delfin (Roger Nite) are the aforementioned unlucky lovers, though when the film opens they don’t start out as such: it’s the town fiesta (what town or which fiesta isn’t specified or I failed to catch — the sound isn’t exactly crystal clear, and every town celebrates one kind or another nearly every weekend of the year), and Mercedes has been crowned “Mutya ng” — Pearl of — the Pasig river.

That’s about as much good fortune as the film will allow; Delfin is accused of stealing property from Don Modesto (Jose Padilla, Jr.) and jailed. Modesto, who always had an eye for Mercedes, manages to talk her into marrying him instead; she agrees and has his baby, a girl. Delfin is released early and meets with Mercedes, causing the townsfolk to gossip. Modesto is furious; he banishes mother and child from the house and — an extravagantly cruel touch — sets his dog on them. Mercedes stumbles into the Pasig and drowns; the baby lands on a nearby lily pad and is carried away.

The story doesn’t generate the same level of tempestuous passion as Bronte’s immortal novel — Delfin and the now-married Mercedes when they meet do little except talk — but does produce an equivalent Heathcliff figure in Modesto (an ironic name if ever). Only Modesto — who shares Heathcliff’s towering pride and streak of vengeful sadism — is actually the Edgar Linton of the narrative or unwanted husband, an interesting way to mix things up. He functions as the story’s antihero, the dark figure that precipitates the crisis and maintains the conflict from one generation to the next — all this while standing (unlike Heathcliff) at the pinnacle of his particular social pyramid, as the town’s doctor and wealthiest citizen. His loneliness on the other hand is more absolute than Heathcliff’s — at least those two loved each other till the end; Modesto’s memories of his wife are more bitter than sweet, flavored with not a little anger, and generous helpings of guilt.

The film comes into its own with the succeeding generation (unlike the book, which tends to fumble for much of its second half). The baby is found, adopted, named Consuelo (later growing up into the lovely Delia Razon); Modesto has become old and crippled. Father and daughter form the most visually striking pair in the film — one radiant and pure, the other bent low by the weight of his remorse.

This is Jose Padilla, Jr.’s picture of course; he looms over the riverside town the way Bronte’s protagonist looms over his heathery estate. He plays Modesto with the outsized machismo of a rich man in Filipino society; we’ll see his spiritual descendant grown monstrously inward some 31 years later in Sgt. Dadong Carandang, the ruling patriarch in Mike De Leon’s classic psychological horror-comedy Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye) (hardly a coincidence that Mike is a grandson of Doña Sisang, and considers Mutya one of his favorite films).

And yet there’s a streak of stubborn integrity to Modesto — he refuses to testify against Delfin at the start of the film; when twice faced with town gossip he reacts without hypocrisy, with the full force of his emotional self. If we regard him as a tragic hero I’d say his flaw is not just pride but honesty: he says what he feels and feels what he says instantly and absolutely. There’s much to admire in such a person; there’s also much that must be tolerated — his servants and especially Mercedes must have been saints to live with him for so long.

Director Richard Abelardo — his cousin Nicanor Abelardo had composed the film’s eponymous theme song* — started out as a painter in Universal Studios and later Warner Brothers and MGM; as with most Filipino immigrants he presumably learned much of the tricks of the trade, and brought them home with him to LVN.

You see the influence of classic-era Hollywood: his use of special effects, often in a subtle manner (Mercedes’ banishment, for example, is accomplished in the middle of an entirely animated downpour), often with eerie lyricism (Mercedes’ face imposed over darkly swirling water), sometimes with a glancing beauty (shot of Consuelo riding a bangka down the river with a vast painted backdrop behind her, of a cordillera of clouds capped by a gem of a moon).

But camera tricks, no matter how sophisticated or primitive, should serve the narrative — an idea most modern filmmakers have forgotten, but which Abelardo applies here with masterful grace. His atmospheric effects build in visual drama and impact till they culminate in the simple (because it just is — no tricks or effects involved) yet startling (because of all the careful visual and narrative preparation beforehand) shot of the long-dead Mercedes sitting alongside the enchanted river, singing her unearthly song. At that moment magic and emotion are as one, and you feel the pull of the current drawing turbulent lives to their inexorable inescapable destiny.

The movie is available for viewing online.

* Nicanor Abelardo composed the lovely theme, but oddly portions of the soundtrack sound as if they had been borrowed from Miklos Rozsa’s score for Hitchcock’s Spellbound — a cost-saving measure perhaps? A common industry practice? Possible idea for future research? Works well enough here, but if you’re familiar with the original it’s a little distracting.