Lola (Brillante Mendoza, 2009)
English Title: Grandmother
Lola (Grandmother), made only a few months after director Brillante Mendoza was awarded the Best Director prize in the 63rd edition of the Cannes Film Festival for his unfairly maligned Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009), struggles with its geriatric pacing. Scenes are stretched, sometimes to the point of tedium. The film opens with one of these staggered sequences of seeming pointlessness, as we observe Sepa (Anita Linda), along with grandson, walk the streets of Manila, from a church to the foot of a steel bridge where she ceremoniously lights a candle despite the disagreeing wind. She rides a passenger jeepney (where she temporarily becomes background to a woman who is on her way to a job interview only to be derailed by a cellphone snatcher who eventually meets his unfortunate fate under the hands of a street mob) to meet her daughter in a funeral parlor, whose manager is too eager to the point of callousness to her mourning and penury to show his expensive coffins. We learn that her grandson just died, and that she needs to raise money to pay up the expenses of the funeral. Sepa’s demeanor, seemingly stoic from the endless travel, changes as she accidentally glances at her dead grandson in the funeral parlor’s morgue, revealing repressed pain and infinite confusion in an otherwise irrepressible exterior.
Mendoza continues to deliberately and patiently unfold his tale. When Sepa arrives at her grandson’s employer to collect donations, we learn that her grandson did not die naturally. The seemingly unrelated crests (the candle-lighting ritual, the attempted snatching of the woman’s cellphone, the look of pain and confusion in Sepa’s face) in Sepa’s seemingly monotonous trip start to make sense: Sepa’s grandson was killed while trying to stop a thief from snatching his phone. The cellphone thief is Mateo (Ketchup Eusebio), the grandson of sidewalk vegetable vendor Puring (Rustica Carpio). The tale seamlessly shifts attention from Sepa to Puring, as she persists on against the heavy rains at night with her other grandson (Jhong Hilario) to plead her community leader to help her grandson. They end up unrewarded, as they arrive at the leader's home only to be rebuked and ordered to come back the next day, when the leader has waken up from his night's slumber. Despite the evident impossibility of her self-imposed task, she indefatigably finds ways to earn the money, both mischievous (like cheating one of her customers the few pesos of change) and noble (like mortgaging her house as collateral to a hefty loan), just to complete the settlement amount and rescue his beloved grandson from rotting in jail.
Mendoza explores repercussions of the crime on the families of both the offender and the offended. That the film manages to stagger its insistence on the evident dullness of living even after an event as momentous as the death or the incarceration of a loved one makes the individual instances of resilience notwithstanding a suffocating backdrop of obvious poverty and oppression more resonant. In one scene that recalls the same harrowing display of human desperation as staged by
Lola’s insistence on centering on the stories of the often marginalized elderly enunciates the often incompassionate and soulless bureaucracy and inefficiency of the Philippines’ criminal justice system. Sepa’s unfortunately embarrassing experience in court, where her futile search for a working comfort room leads to her wetting herself, pushes the irony that the courts, the symbol of civilization because it supposedly humanely provides a semblance of justice and order in society, is without the very basic necessities of human living: a working comfort room. That painful irony as vividly pointed out in that scene, ludicrous if you think about it from the perspective of one who has all the comforts in the world but very real, is a consistent theme throughout Mendoza’s filmography. Mendoza has consistently examined, to the point of being accused of peddling his nation’s overt poverty to foreigners, the recurring ironies that exist in a country that is supposedly Catholic (but as in the unapologetically filthy interiors of the aging movie house in Serbis (Service, 2008) is just an imagined moral concept), democratic (but as the conclusions of Tirador (Slingshot, 2007) and Manoro (The Teacher, 2006) dictate, is a futile concept), law-abiding and civilized (but as the hellish horrors of Kinatay explicate, is easily discarded). Lola’s depiction of abject poverty is more than just an instrument to draw sympathy for its two struggling grandmothers, since it stresses the sheer severity of the human condition that masquerades its shortcomings with establishments of order and equity.
By differentiating the two grandmothers with their respective struggles and experiences after the murder, Mendoza creates a palpable distance between the two, characterized by the anonymity Sepa has for Puring’s incessant pleas for settlement. However, underneath their conflicting positions is a shared responsibility, and from that responsibility, a shared tenacity to achieve their respective goals, and from there, a meeting ground. The two meet in a restaurant; and quite unexpectedly, instead of discussing in detail the specifics of their planned settlement, they chatter about their age, aching backs, arthritis, unhealthy food and finally, their stubborn husbands. The scene, shot by cinematographer Odyssey Flores with the same inconspicuous manner as the rest of the film, recalls the facet of humanity that Mendoza has fluently explored over and over again. In a world that has been consumed by an unbelievable brand of reality as imposed by poverty, it is not the very few triumphs that would inevitably connect us, but our common ability to first accept, and then survive pain and suffering, and still push on and just exist.