Friday, March 26, 2010

The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

The Unfamiliar Fragrance of Faith
A Review of Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis
By Francis Joseph Cruz

Francis, rising from prayer, is obviously distraught. His usually calm face is shaking in distress and moist with fresh tears. His prayer, where he lays face down on the ground murmuring “Jesus, nailed on the cross” in between sobs, is more o an act of contrition than a dialogue with God. A leper, his beggarly clothes barely covering the open sores that populate his flesh, walks by. Francis, upon seeing the beggar nearing his spot, covers his face in sadness. He follows the leper and stops to acknowledge him. The leper walks away. He again follows the leper and stops to acknowledge him. The leper walks away. Still undaunted by the repetitive inattention given to him by the leper, he follows him, stops, and embraces the outcast. The leper still walks away, but stops before he gets too far, and looks back at Francis. Francis remains and lays anew among the flowers under the night lighted by his Sister Moon.

The scene described above is merely one of the episodes plucked from The Little Flowers of St. Francis and The Life of Brother Ginepro, two important Franciscan texts that detail the life of the saint and one of his followers, and immortalized into screen by neorealist director Roberto Rossellini in his 1950 masterpiece, Francesco, giullare di Gio (literally translated as Francis, the Jester of God but more popularly known as The Flowers of St. Francis). Filtered from the scene or most of the scenes of the film is the comfort of resolution.

The episodes are mostly portraits of the monks’ daily life, characterized by their childlike naïveté and upright selflessness. In fact, all innocence, humility and goodwill, as exemplified by the leper’s unemotional reaction towards Francis’ act of piety, are often rewarded with indifference, annoyance and violence. The film, narratively unstructured and connected theoretically by an indefinable atmosphere of spiritual serenity, is historically placed between the period of Pope Innocent’s acknowledgement of Francis’ spiritual movement and the period where Francis orders his followers to preach in different parts of the world. With that historical perspective, the film persists as a document of faith, against an overpowering lack of any proof to the existence of a God as professed by the abundance of unkindness despite the dogmatic intervention of the Church.

The film was made during the time Rossellini was publicly decried for having an affair with Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman. The two were married to different people, but have met during the filming of Stromboli. Despite the emotional turbulence brought about by the scandal, The Flowers of St. Francis remains almost unnaturally serene. Not only that, Rossellini is a self-professed atheist. However, the film, with its clear and convincing exaltation of faith, is probably one of the most poignant and effective films about a religious figure of all time.

In comparison to the guilt-ridden and arguably hateful excesses of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the humanizing intimacy of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Rossellini’s film seems inconsequential with its insistence on the mundane, the banal, and the quizzical spiritual implications of such simplicity. Yet, its lack of indulgence, its humility, and concern to the action rather than the effect, postulates the very essence of faith: that it is personal and does not require evidence. Had Rossellini decided to exalt Francis and his monks with the immensity of their work, then its definition of faith would have been compromised, making it less a film and more of a didactic Catholic propaganda.

The film ends with Francis and his monks, after giving away all of their possessions to the poor, decide to part to preach their ways. A monk asks where they should go. Francis tells them to spin until they are dizzy; the direction in which they land will be the direction they should go to and preach. They separate as Rossellini’s camera reveals the sky, calm yet uncertain. Faith is exactly that, calm yet uncertain. The Flowers of St. Francis gains more pertinence in these uncertain times, where faith, despite the ease of claiming possession of it, is an unfamiliar, if not completely rare, fragrance.

(First published in The A/V Club, Philippine Star, 26 March 2010)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Lupang Hinarang (2009)

Lupang Hinarang (Ditsi Carolino, 2009)
English Translation: Hindered Land

Ditsi Carolino’s Lupang Hinarang (roughly translated in English as Hindered Land), a two-part documentary about the failure of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Act, screened during last year’s edition of Cinemalaya as a work-in-progress. The documentary has all the ingredients for late-night editorial-political television programming. However, what Carolino does is both simple and magical. By following the farmers in their symbolic battles (the Cuenca farmers staged a 29-day hunger strike in front of the Agrarian Reform headquarters; while the Bukidnon farmers walked all the way from Bukidnon to Manila), allowing the farmers to tell or show their own stories without need of intervention, and ultimately relegates the politics to the background, she molds what possibly could be the most poignant, urgent and pertinent advocacy-oriented film in recent years. Editing hundreds of hours of footage into a tightly weaved package showcases Carolino’s talent for taut storytelling and efficient filmmaking. Creating a masterpiece that moved an entire audience to sobs and tears for people whose lives and dilemmas they would hardly know or care for showcases Carolino’s sincerity, selflessness, and compassion, three traits I wish more of our filmmakers had. The fact that the documentary is still a work-in-progress is quite troubling, evoking a sense that there are still so much promises of land grants that remain hindered and unfulfilled.

(First published in The A/V Club, Philippine Star, 19 March 2010; Richard Bolisay, Dodo Dayao and Philbert Dy's recommendations can be read here; Gang Badoy's beautifully written tribute to Alexis Tioseco and introduction to The A/V Club can be read here)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Miss You Like Crazy (2010)

High-Cholesterol Romance
A Review of Cathy Garcia-Molina's Miss You Like Crazy
By Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Watching a Star Cinema-produced romance is comparable to eating a McDonald's hamburger. The two activities, depending on one's tolerance for junk food, elicit one predictable response: momentary elation. Morgan Spurlock, in his hilarious yet disturbing documentary Super Size Me (2004), has taught us that the McDonald's burger is specifically engineered to be elating enough to be addictive. Star Cinema makes romances like McDonalds makes burgers. The film studio follows a strict formula, putting together the most ideal of love teams in the most un-ideal of romantic relationships with the most magically conceived of happy endings. The result is assured box-office success. The result of that result is a stubborn and artistically-numbing adherence to the formula.

If Star Cinema romances are McDonald's burgers, then director Cathy Garcia-Molina is arguably the most effective fry cook in the studio's roster of fry cooks which includes Laurenti Dyogi (And I Love You So (2009), tepid and underwhelming), Rory Quintos (Love Me Again (2009), overindulgent yet inconsequential), Jose Javier Reyes (When Love Begins (2008), frustratingly cluttered), and Jade Castro (My Big Love (2008), disappointing and uneven), among many others. Her effectivity, I guess, stems from the absolute lack of resistance to the mechanicality of her role in these productions. She understands the studio’s goal of profit, accedes to the studio’s restrictive processes, and proceeds to create delightful farces that only reinforce a cultural need for escape. In other words, she does what a fry cook does best: flip burger patties, toast burger buns, and prepare a hamburger that comes closest to perfection.

Her films, from the portion she directed in Bcuz of U (2004), a triptych of bubbly but inconsequential love stories, to A Very Special Love (2008), a fluffy and admittedly enjoyable unlikely romance between an ordinary employee and her rich, handsome yet difficult boss, are all charming confections, delicious enough to make you forget, even for just about an hour, that outside the darkness of the theaters, there are outstanding bills to pay, nagging wives to please, and other pressing problems to face. Perhaps Garcia-Molina’s most charming film is still You Are The One (2006), an undemanding but colorful story about a U.S. embassy official who is looking for his real parents and a government employee who is wrestling with self-confidence who become entangled in a whirlwind love affair that ends in an expectedly happy note. One More Chance (2008), Star Cinema’s attempt to expand its notion of romantic relationships to include something as banally realistic as break-ups, the emotional pain it induces to ex-lovers, and the sacred three-month rule, signaled Garcia-Molina as a director who aside from visualizing the occasional joyful tingles of falling in love, can also communicate the pangs of a recent heartache.

Miss You Like Crazy, Garcia-Molina’s latest, is just another addition to the director’s list of near-perfect burgers. While it is entertaining and at times, intriguing, it remains unremarkable probably because nothing, with the exceptions of the little tweaks in the formula-formed narrative and the out-of-the-country setting, differentiates it from any of the director’s previous works.

Alan (John Lloyd Cruz), who is falling out of love with his controlling girlfriend (Maricar Reyes), initiates a love affair with Mia (Bea Alonzo), a not-so-sassy girl he meets during his daily commutes aboard the Pasig River ferry. As it turns out, Alan and Mia’s irrefutable connection (which apparently erupts into an impromptu lovemaking session inside Alan’s rustic unfurnished riverside abode) is no match to fate. A few years later, the two ill-fated lovebirds meet again, this time, in Kuala Lumpur. Alan remains hopeful that he will be able to find Mia, fix the mistakes of the past, and win her back into his arms. Mia, on the other hand, has a loving boyfriend (Gerald Hans Isaac). Despite the flurry of lovely emotions (as cinematically represented by Erik Santos’ baritone suddenly bursting to the tune of I Miss You Like Crazy to accompany the two leads’ reunion beneath the metaphoric Petronas Towers) that immediately come into play with the acknowledgment that a fragment of that complicated love affair still survives, it seems that human effort (we later learn that Alan has been visiting and revisiting Kuala Lumpur just to search for Mia) is still powerless to fate. In fact, all that Alan had to do was to wait, and save himself from the aches, stress, and frustrations of doing everything for nothing.

Fate does not leave a lot of room for shocks and surprises. With fate as the primary motivator of all its love stories, Star Cinema is unabashed about the predictability of its film offerings. After all, there is comfort in predictability. In a country where the norm is discomfort, comfort sells. Thus, McDonald’s, Star Cinema and other similar peddlers of shallow comforts do well in this country. They offer what reality can’t, a release, no matter how temporary, from the unpredictability of life. Having tried my best to rationalize why Star Cinema films do so well and accept the fact that there is absolutely nothing I can write or do to force a corporation to steer away from what gives it the most profit, I still hope to see a Star Cinema romance that would tackle unfated love. Truth be told, burgers, no matter how masterful the fry cook cooks them, are still junk food. I believe the same goes for movies.

(First published in Philippine Free Press, 20 March 2010)

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Bakal Boys (2009)

Bakal Boys (Ralston Jover, 2009)
English Title: Children Metal Divers

The first half of Ralston Jover's Bakal Boys (Children Metal Divers) is excellent filmmaking. Jover, writer of Brillante Mendoza's Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), Foster Child (2007), and Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), and Jeffrey Jeturian's Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2006), gives an engaging glimpse of Baseco, one of Manila's most depressed areas, and its surrounding shorelines through the eyes of children who seek to augment their families' minuscule income by scavenging for junk metal and selling them. Opening with two best friends, 10 year-old Utoy (Meljon Ginto) and 12 year-old Bungal (Edgardo Olano, Jr.), being chased by a security guard for allegedly pilfering junk metal from a neighboring shipyard, the film's first half immerses its audience to the peculiar life these kids, by virtue of extreme poverty, are forced to live. Despite the dire circumstances that naturally presents itself, Jover treats the material with delightful levity, never forgetting that his subjects, no matter how much they are forced to grow up quicker than the rest, are still children. They are still preoccupied with such matters like play and friendship, juggling these juvenile needs and more with very real threats of pain, hunger and death.

From the mundaneness of these children's day-to-day existence, Jover finds lyric. From the overt grime, he uncovers an unlikely elegance. From the undignified treatment of life that leads to the triteness of death, he reveals a quiet compassion for his subjects. Virtually unadorned with the exception of the infrequent pleasant melodies composed by Teresa Barrozo, the film forgoes distance for intimacy. Jover's camera tireless follows these children as they play and work. The underwater scenes, where the camera shows the children swimming past floating dirt and debris, are not beautiful images in a traditional sense, considering that there is barely anything to be seen except for the constant browns of the cloudy water and the silhouettes of delicate children floating for long periods of time, yet it emphasizes the discomforting burden of childhood innocence and the struggle of livelihood that these children have to grow up with. There is an intriguing blur of play and work when we see these children, donning their worn out goggles and makeshift flippers, swimming in and out of the frame.

The sea, an endless expanse of space that the children sees as both a provider and a taker, is depicted with intrigue and mystery. Despite the overabundance of grueling reality, the film manages to evoke a faint mysticism, not much different from the magical attributes Mario O'Hara gifted polluted Manila Bay with in Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004). The enigmatic disappearance of Bungal, an emotional baggage that pervades the latter half of the film, is depicted with cool casualness. Alone, he jumps, with the suddenness of a random irrational decision, and swims further and further from the safety of land, and in a way, further and further from the hardships of living. That scene, precursored by the children planning their dive among other concerns, has the same curious abruptness Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), where young schoolgirls and their teacher suddenly disappear after an afternoon picnic. While Bakal Boys does not center on the lack of answers regarding the disappearance (Jover makes it clear that dozens of children drown weekly because of the practice), the film manages to give the sea a semblance of reverence, and more importantly, minimize the inevitable didactic repercussions of tackling such a socially relevant subject matter by delegating the drama of Bungal's disappearance or death off-screen.

Bakal Boys, however, without losing its sincerity, loses a bit of the realness that kept the first half afloat. Inescapably, after selling their haul (a particularly memorable scene where a shrewd scrap metal dealer haggles with the children) and dividing the earnings among themselves, the kids return to their respective homes, and the film expands its scope to involve adult matters. The adults are played by professional actors (Simon Ibarra as Utoy's father; Gina Pareño, who with her commonplace looks, can usually seamlessly meld with the settings and situations the characters she plays, as Bungal's grieving grandmother; Ketchup Eusebio, Jess Evardone, Cherry Malvar and Joe Gruta play various roles). Yet, there is an observable difference between how the actors and the real children inhabit their roles, how the actors are obviously playing a written character while the children are not, knowing the concrete grief caused by actually losing a best friend to the sea. The result, especially in scenes when the kids are with the actors, is a palpable awkwardness, which prevents me from fully investing myself to the rawness and immediacy of the human concern.

Still, Bakal Boys is very good. Instead of bludgeoning the film with the larger picture, Jover concentrates on accurately encapsulating the kids' day-to-day life in a span of less than two hours, clinging to the mundane and banal and finally, allowing the kids to tell their own stories without much directorial intervention. In a film that puts the triviality of life (to the point of death being a relief) in the midst of economic desperation as the forefront of its social discourse, it's quite impressive how Jover has kept the perspective wholly human.