Selda (Ellen Ramos & Paolo Villaluna, 2008)
English Title: The Inmate
Absent all the plot contrivances and inconsistencies, Ellen Ramos and Paolo Villaluna's sophomore feature film Selda (The Inmate) is actually very good. The film plays out like a Filipino-version of
Rommel (Sid Lucero), is incarcerated for accidentally killing a young boy. He is introduced to the jail warden (Michael de Mesa), who immediately initiates him into harsh prison life by forewarning him of the embarrassment, the violence, and the sex that may happen inside the prison. Inside the prison, he befriends several of his cell mates, including a much elderly inmate (Soliman Cruz) who hesitates to reveal the crime for which he is serving years for, a younger inmate (Ping Medina), who has a compulsion to remain physically clean despite the obvious grime of prison. He develops much more than an acquaintance however to his cell's mayor Esteban (Emilio Garcia), whose beguiling silence and assuredness evokes a sense of mystery to the man. As the novice of the prison community, Rommel becomes the target of the cell bully (Allan Paule) who is indefatigable in his attempts to deflower the newcomer. Rommel's experiences in prison is without a doubt turmoiled and life-altering.
I must admit that I disliked Ramos and Villaluna's first film Ilusyon (Illusion). My dislike for the film springs from its visual stylizations, which seem to outweigh the film's core values. Ramos and Villaluna drape the film with luscious swirls of cigarette smokes and other visual quirks which I thought overpowered the less-than-remarkable plot of conman who is pretending to be a famous painter and eventually falling in love with his muse. Ramos and Villaluna do not abandon their very rich aesthetic sense for Selda, but instead reinforces with a storyline that really has something substantial to say. Odyssey Flores' cinematography in Selda is simply beautiful and intelligent. His camera deliberately wafts through the limited spaces of the prison, capturing the glum and dehumanized faces, the punctuated gestures, the very material details that constitute prison life. His framing is exquisite; like when Rommel cries himself to sleep after being raped, Flores' camera frames his depressed form lying in the hammock in the foreground with Esteban clearly visible in the background looking intently, probably silently sympathizing with him. While Ilusyon's visuals are beautiful but arguably empty, Selda's is pregnant with daring and real emotional ache.
Selda's themes are laid down subtly. Rommel guards his manliness the very moment he steps into jail, possibly knowledgeable of the rumors about what really happens in the showers of an all-male prison. His nights and dreams are spent succumbing to sexual fantasies or visual flashbacks of intimate times with Sita (Ara Mina), his girlfriend, in probable reinforcement of his heterosexuality despite the several attempts to break that normalcy. Ramos and Villaluna do not indulge in rationalizing or putting a logical reason behind homosexual love. They are satisfied in the mystical grooves that are to initiate the romance between two supposedly straight individuals. It is during Rommel's nighttime sexual fantasies, the very same tool he uses to reinforce his manliness, that he realizes that his sexuality has gone off-tangent, that Esteban's role has grown from friend and protector to lover and possible replacement of Sita. The sexual awakening is deliberate and subtle. It is mystifying in a way that it occurs in the very same place where homosexuality is depicted as embarrassing and predatory, but love mysteriously happens.
From the claustrophobic and exploitative atmosphere of the prison, Selda moves to the wide open spaces of Rommel and Sita's rice farm, which both have started to develop after Rommel's release from prison. The two now have a six year old daughter and they seem to be genuinely satisfied with their simple life. When Esteban visits the couple, longings are awakened creating a sordid imbalance in the seemingly happy marital life of Rommel and Sita. Again, Ramos and Villaluna exhibit an astute eye for gestures and brewing emotions, thus subtly inflicting a sense of disarray in the illusory happiness we witness. From impassioned prison-bound love story, Selda morphs into a morality play where the subjects of identity and truth are prominently tackled. While love has become the indisputably constant element here, it gives birth to jealousy, suspicion, mistrust, and anger, mutated offsprings of an emotion that is supposedly pure and untainted.
The tragic consequences of this inability to embrace love and cope with the indispensable effects of realizing the pertinent change in identity is in Ramos and Villaluna's film, is depicted in a near-operatic scene where blood, mud, tears, and regret are mixed in a disturbing and affecting epiphany of sorts. That same epiphany occurs earlier in the film when Rommel is raped in an abandoned field near the inmates' workplace. There, he lets go of his treasured notion of pure masculinity in a moment where rain, blood, mud, sweat, cum, and regret interact to accompany his painful deflowering, which serves as harsh realization of the new reality wherein his preconceived black-and-white notions of sexuality and love are no longer applicable.
Selda, above the connotations of its title which obviously refers to the prison cell wherein Rommel spends almost half of the duration of the film, is essentially about a different kind of imprisonment. At first, it weaves Rommel's physical imprisonment with his very own suffocation because of the dictates of society, which forces him to believe that his heterosexuality is unmodifiable thus completely guarding his person against any indication of homosexuality. The moment he escapes from that internal prison of adjusting to the patriarchal constructs of proper masculinity, he is confronted with a deeper and harder hindrance: to accept this newfound love which further stretches his identity possibly hindering whatever loving relationship that he was formerly aware of. He retreats, and again encases himself with lies. He inevitably fails and wallows in the possible perpetual inability to love as purely as he once had with Esteban.