Mutya ng Pasig (Richard Abelardo, 1950)
English Title: Muse of Pasig
Part of the charm of watching Richard Abelardo’s Ang Mutya ng Pasig (Muse of Pasig) today, is witnessing the habitable state of the Pasig River a few decades ago. The film opens during the town’s fiesta --- the citizenry in hordes (some of them floating in the river’s sparkling waters; unthinkable today since the waters have lost its sparkle with the accumulation of grease, trash, and other stuff throughout the years) celebrating Mercedes (Rebecca Gonzalez) and Delfin (Roger Nite), the lovely couple crowned as the fiesta’s muse and escort, respectively.
The film follows the turn of events that would separate Delfin from Mercedes, who ends up marrying Don Modesto (Jose Padilla, Jr.), the town’s doctor who harbors a secret affection for the town muse. Tormented by jealousy and uncertainty, Don Modesto banishes Mercedes and their newborn baby (characterized with a birthmark; not a mere plot contrivance since it also facilitates Modesto’s questioning of the child’s paternity when he says the child was born under shadowy circumstances, thus the birthmark). The baby grows up (now played by the Delia Razon), and is named Consuelo by the kindly couple (played by Tolindoy and Angge, comedians with perfect wit and comedic timing) who found her floating in the river and adopted her, and becomes the sweetheart of Basilio (Teody Belarmino), coincidentally the son of Delfin.
The film’s much more than a time capsule of the former luster of Manila's most prominent river. It’s actually a lovely confection --- melodrama in heaps with a tinge of the surreal (Mercedes’ face appearing from the floating water lilies in the river; Don Modesto relives his unjustified banishment of Mercedes through what looks like a thought bubble) and the folkloric (the film is weaved from the tale of a mermaid who appears in the river at night, luring men to their deaths through her beautiful singing). It’s all balanced carefully by Abelardo, who deftly tells the story with genteel frankness (much like a storybook unfolding with exciting and imaginative vigor).
Mercedes’ apparitions are hauntingly beautiful. She appears garbed in an elaborate dress singing the titular song (composed by Nicanor Abelardo, brother of the director and treasured musician); the intricate melody can only be heard by those who matter (Don Modesto who sadly peers from his window; Consuelo who is mysteriously drawn to the river and the water lilies that populate its waters; later, to Basilio and those looking for her). It’s a lovely diversion from folkloric tradition --- the mermaid’s allure to eager men becomes a desperate wife and mother’s pleas to correct the errors of the past.
You understand the pain, and even that endless longing, that withstands death, that withstands the cruelty of her banishment (one of the film's most exciting and visually powerful sequences is when Mercedes is sent away --- she runs underneath the violent downpour of rain, and chased by Don Modesto's dog through the river banks).
Mutya ng Pasig may not be as sleek as the clever dramas of our contemporary film age (you can’t deny that there are sequences which hamper the film’s flow). However, its timeless feel is undeniable. There’ll always be a lingering sense of wonderment whenever the story unfolds; or a sudden rush of excitement when the father is reunited with his daughter; or that well-deserved gush of emotions when the ailments caused by human fallibility is suddenly cured, and forgiven. It is, quite simply, magical.