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Critic After Dark

Biyaya ng Lupa
Directed by Manuel Silos
Citizen Jake vimeo site

(Warning! Plot twists and story details explicitly discussed.)

MANUEL SILOS’ Biyaya ng Lupa (Blessings of the Land, 1959) is one of those films where one is hard-pressed to say why or how it’s great. It’s so understated, so modestly poised, so gracefully proportioned it takes a while — perhaps some time after a screening — before the finer qualities sink in deep enough to plink at the outer fringes of awareness.

The film may also be one of the least known of great films, remembered mostly by those with more than passing familiarity with 1950s Filipino cinema. The few that do remember, however, remember with affection.

The film opens to a tolling church bell, camera craning down to a just-concluded wedding ceremony with celebrations just begun — chorus in full volume, old ladies swaying, dancers and musicians streaming towards the screen. Perhaps the most telling image comes late in the festivities: newlyweds Maria and Jose (Rosa Rosal, Tony Santos, Sr.) look up at the camera while the town elders offer marital advice, the young couples’ faces wide open and receptive not just to their words but (it’s suggested) to whatever life and the world will throw at them.

The couple arrives at their new home and Jose informs Maria of his future plans: a plot of lanzones plantings, to be nurtured and watered for some 20 years before the (hopefully) bountiful harvest.

That’s the setup of course: boundless reward after a near-lifetime — some two decades — of commitment. Maria and Jose are wonderfully carefree as befitting honeymooners (Rosa and Tony look so young!), but already these mute broad-leafed sprouts strike an ominous note: not so much a promise as the promise of a promise challenged, perhaps broken in the sometime future.

The next 20 or so minutes is a beautifully edited and scored précis of life happening to Maria and Jose: they replant the seedlings at properly spaced intervals; water them; plow a nearby field. A child is born, and Jose carves his name (Miguel, to be played by Leroy Salvador) into a coconut tree trunk. Arturo (Carlos Padilla, Jr.) follows; then Angelita (Marita Zobel); then Carmen — who dies early — followed by Lito (Danilo Jurado). A storm wipes out the early lanzones blossoms, delaying harvest and dashing Jose’s hopes to send Arturo and Angelita to Manila for schooling (unspoken: Jose believes deaf-mute Miguel deserves kind treatment but not a proper education — apparently there are limits to the man’s progressive sentiments).

A chunk of story quickly told, and yet carefully paced to match the leisurely tempo of provincial life: never hurried yet relentless, often dreary yet blessed with moments of pleasure (holding one’s beloved in one’s arms; dangling a newborn at the knee; gazing with pride at blooming crops).

Linking event and image are Rosa Rosal’s lovely voice crooning a lullaby to one babe after another, and the lanzones rising from sprout to seedling to sapling, their ample dark-olive leaves spreading an ever more confident canopy. Life is difficult to depict persuasively on the big screen; I submit that countryside life complete with dull spots and everyday highlights is an even thornier challenge to get right. Silos with no apparent effort gets it right.

Enter Bruno (the ever-excellent Joseph de Cordova). Bruno is a widow and rumors say he killed his wife; the problem is no one dares tell him to his face which, as straight shooter Jose immediately points out, is wrong. Doesn’t stop Bruno from resenting Jose when the latter stops the former from pressing his too-ardent attentions on hapless Choleng (Mila Ocampo). Bruno’s damaged reputation is a festering boil that bursts when Choleng trips atop a steep embankment and the townsfolk accuse Bruno; he flees for his life, for some reason fixating on Jose as the cause of his troubles.

Bruno is unjustly treated; does this justify what he does? Jose is also unjustly blamed; does this justify his attempt at revenge on Bruno? Suddenly, with little fuss and comment, the film becomes an unselfconscious treatise on displaced aggression, where logic has no role and those involved become victim or victimizer or both, as dictated by random chance.

A lot like nature, one realizes, remembering the storm that tore down Jose’s blossoms. Could this be the world’s way of displacing aggression onto us? Or — shifting definitions only a little — could life be so meaningless? Bruno — arguably Joseph Cordova’s finest role — is lit and shot like a Hammer Studios creature, scar running like a fault line down one cheek; he might represent the town’s simmering malevolence come back to haunt them, might represent Jose’s dark side — his macho sense of honor demanding retribution — come back to confront him, might represent (this the most horrific of all) nothing: the outlaw as random predator, staging sudden assaults on the vulnerable for no good reason at all.

And different people are tested. Jose first, who because he fails to get at root causes — fails to ask Bruno why he did what he did — is penalized. When Bruno crosses a line and presents his grievance — ignoring a reasonable counter-argument from one of his hired men — he, in turn, is penalized. Then Miguel does the same, looks heavenwards, pleads forgiveness — Miguel realizes the enormity of his actions and is contrite. Will that make a difference? Who knows?

Silos, if anything, is a more modest a stylist than Lamberto Avellana, who in film after film delivered amazing filmmaking when the story called for it. Other than the occasional shock cuts, with Cordova’s scarface looming at the camera, Silos keeps to classic mise-en-scéne till the final assault on Maria’s household (Bruno again, of course) — suddenly stealth is required, and mother and children pantomime a desperate plan; suddenly Silos is producing pure cinema, ratcheting up suspense with minimum effort, the very definition of art.

Here and there along the narrative Silos drops grace notes of visual beauty: a carabao nosing a plow’s yoke onto its shoulders; Miguel and girlfriend sitting under a lean-to, playing out romantic comedy as if in a backyard theater; Jose and Bruno in dramatic confrontation while Miguel prowls unknowingly beneath — the latter an extraordinary image of life playing out in relentless real-time.

A great film? Absolutely. Neglected and little-known? Absolutely. Go, see, enjoy.

(Biyaya ng Lupa is available with English subtitles at Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake Vimeo website.)





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