Chassis (Adolfo Alix, Jr., 2010)
Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s Chassis opens with Nora (Jodi Sta. Maria) ironing the school uniform of her daughter inside a modest house. The house, perhaps a few square meters wide, consists of very few belongings, some furniture, the ironing horse, cheap ornaments hanging on the wall, one of which Alix’s camera becomes fixated on because it showcases the ideal house. Nora finishes her chore and thanks the owner for her kindness. No, this is not Nora’s house. She lives elsewhere.
Alix’s camera follows Nora as she crosses a wide cement gap that separates her neighbor’s house with the parking lot of huge container trucks. Underneath the chassis of one of the parked trucks hangs a hammock where Nora’s daughter is sleeping. Nora’s husband sleeps on the cold cement. This is Nora’s home, or at least until the truck drives off to one of its many destinations. She wakes her daughter, bathes her, helps her into her uniform, and finally sends her to school. It seems that the events of that morning have ripened into routine. Shockingly, normalcy has inevitably crept into what is obviously a situation that can only be described as both unjust and absurd.
With its opening of expertly mounted visual cues, Chassis immediately forces notice of the gravity of its oppressive milieu. Alix separates from the tattered houses of the slums, clichéd by the dozens of films that are situated there, and slides further and deeper into penury, focusing primarily on individuals who have made homes and attempt to raise families out of parked trucks. Alix overemphasizes the bleakness of his chosen setting, visualizing his setting in monochrome, effectively removing any semblance of color from the sorry lots of his characters and the place they live in.
The images Alix creates, with the help of cinematographer Gabriel Bagnas, are astoundingly austere, more stylized and carefully framed portraits of extreme poverty in the midst of what supposedly represents a bustling trade economy than anything else. Chassis, if experienced only as a series of moving pictures, feels like an album of black and white postcards of Manila in its most deplorable, most depressed and most desperate.
Alix often shows Nora’s face, suspiciously serene despite her troubling circumstance, in close-up. It is as if he commands from Nora’s the same irony as he does from his milieu. After all, both subjects, Nora and Manila as represented here by its port area, are beautiful yet tarnishing. In the frequent close-ups, Alix prompts his viewers to observe Nora, to become intimate with her, and to understand the lack of any intense emotion from her face as she goes about her daily routine that is rife with oppression, from the men who pay her a paltry sum for a quickie, from her husband who can’t provide for her and her daughter decent shelter, and from the society that fosters her dire situation. She has been calloused to the point of being deprived of truly feeling. She only expresses genuine emotions, of joy, sadness and later on anger, with events concerning her daughter.
Alix exploits both milieu and subject, creating a film that instantly grabs you by strength of both its premise and Sta. Maria’s presence. However, the film attempts to go beyond observation of the severe human condition, participating further by enveloping such observations within a story that attempts to push gender discourse. Alix basically paints a grim community where dominating males are unable to provide, forcing the stronger women to prostitute herself for mere survival. The film’s debatable conclusion portrays Nora’s revolt towards her severely iniquitous predicament, bringing the film closer to being unduly didactic if not totally academic, betraying ultimately any emotions already invested on the fate of the film’s female protagonist. Thus, Chassis persisted as a powerful piece of cinema verite until it mistakenly took that final-minute drastic turn for inexplicable shock to forward a negligible and passé statement on the state of patriarchy in the Philippines’ poorest sectors.
(Cross-published in Twitch.)