By Noel Vera
(Three Years Without God)
Directed by Mario O’Hara
LAST October my mother died.
Which to the world at large may not mean much. But it was with her in mind that I saw the digitally restored version of Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), recently released on iTunes.
(Warning! Story details and plot twists are explicitly discussed)
Not an inappropriate choice. I was in a dark mood and the film — well the opening narration says it all: three years so awful the people felt abandoned by God. The film opens with the start of World War 2: Rosario (Nora Aunor) is engaged to Crispin (Bembol Roco), who leaves her to fight the Japanese. Japanese officer Masugi (Christopher de Leon) rapes Rosario, leaving her pregnant with two unhappy alternatives: to resist Masugi’s offer of marriage and starve with the rest of her fellow Filipinos, or accept the offer and be called a Japanese sympathizer (or worse).
Following Rosario’s story I realized: Rosario at some level is my mother. Not that my mother experienced war and its horrors or that she was ever caught in an indelicate position between two suitors but this: the world was convinced that it was right and she was wrong. And no matter what she did or how much she tried to change things, the world remained convinced that it was right and that she was still wrong.
My mother’s sin was to marry into a wealthy family. Oh she worked hard to be accepted; she went back to school and studied veterinary medicine (she already had a business administration degree) to help in the family’s farming operations. She bore two children — me and my twin brother — which ideally should have delighted all involved. But, the nature of my family being what it is (And who am I to judge when something acts according to its nature?), there was always tension. My mother, being strongwilled, never gave up trying — first, to be brought into their good graces; later, to be free of their hold and influence.
Rosario never did anything by halves. When she’s set against something — against Masugi’s proposal to make her a Japanese officer’s (a lieutenant from the look of his insignia) wife — she’s feet-planted-firmly-in-the-ground against it, despite repeated pleading from Masugi (who says he wants to do right by her) and from her mother. When my mother once left my father after an especially bitter fight, she took me along (I was — what — seven or eight years old?) and fled to the provinces. Only me? What about my father? What about my brother, from whom I’d never been separated? But she was furious, and would not be contradicted.
Rosario relents; so eventually did my mother. While capable of change, it’s not easy for these women; O’Hara measures the depth of that change from the tip of Rosario’s arms, sitting atop a high bridge, to the rocky bottom of a chasm below. I measured my mother’s anger by the miles she drove me away from home. When Rosario changed course, she stuck to that course for the rest of the war; when my mother came back to my father, she stayed with him for the rest of her life — bore him four more girls in fact, all of which I suspect are more emotionally mature than I can ever be.
And the world still would not forgive either women, would not let them forget they were outsiders, would not let them forget they were wrong. Did I say my mother never experienced war? She was in constant battle. Arguably the most desperate, most exhausting conflicts are fought not between nations or peoples but within a nation or people — or, if you like, within a family.
It cost my mother dearly, I think; part of that cost is the suppression of affection between us. If I want to drive myself crazy I try untangle that complex knot of feelings festering in my head: why did it happen and who is to blame? Sometimes I assign all fault to myself, sometimes to no one. Sometimes I look hard on myself and see the disappointment I must have been to her. Sometimes I theorize (Fantasize?) that in her need to finally be rid of my father’s family altogether and live life with her husband and children as she sees fit, everything else fell away in her eyes, including (though she may not have intended it) myself. Sometimes I think my mother’s private war was so exhausting, so full of despair, I had to get away from her to survive myself.
How bad did things get? When I heard news of her death (I hadn’t seen her in 15 years) not a tear. I was stone inside.
I watch Rosario as the war wound down to its end and I see how the world narrows around her, how a Japanese officer’s wife — his whore, as many folks call her — is forced to run in smaller and smaller circles, seeking escape. She can’t afford to be nice; when the city is bombed and her housemaid goes into hysterics she slaps the young girl, drags her away. The world is falling apart and her focus is sharpened into a microscopic point: the need to keep her family safe. The need to stay by her husband’s side.
I thought of my mother in the months after her third stroke, her world narrowed down to a single bed, paralyzed, unable to speak, barely able to see and touch and hear. And still for all I know loyal to her husband, still fighting that war inside her head.
The world, after its great depression, its simmering wars, its escalating nationalist and political and racial tensions, seems to have less and less use for art, for the way art refracts life, the way it unsettles us and startles us into seeing that life in a new way. I don’t know; I disagree. I take a stand with my mother against the world and assert — never mind if I’m wrong — that while life has primary importance, art still has lasting value. I have many reasons for being fond of this film, and have found a new one: in its profound empathy for its characters, good or evil right or wrong, it has brought my mother back to me.