Movie: Ang Larawan (2017)

[ random movie time ]
Is random movie time still random if people expect it? #MMFF

Disclaimer: This review is theoretically shorter than the rest, because the feelings aren’t as fresh. I’m working off notes I made around three days ago or so.

I’m sure this was meant to be a review, not a literary criticism.

Ang Larawan (2017) stands out amongst other MMFF offerings for its natural lyricism, its metaphorical depth, and its performance. While this year’s Best Picture isn’t a perfect film, it was a great film. It provokes both thought and inspiration, and celebrates Filipino heritage in some ways.

The first thing one must applaud is Ryan Cayabyab’s musical treatment of the classic play, and the Philharmonic Orchestra’s rousing rendition of the said music. It was a well-deserved award for Best Musical Score. My only experience in Filipino musicals was the rock-musical Rak of Aegis, staged in PETA. The experience was exciting, but a soundtrack tailored to a musical and not the other way around gives a different feeling.

Here, instead, the music tied the film together. I don’t know the technical terms for it, but the soundtrack was thematically consistent and at the same time varied and tailored to the emotions of the scene. It kept me on my seat. It encouraged me to listen well to the words and to focus on the story.

If at times I wanted to zone out (especially at the drawn out middle act of the two-hour film), the music’s strong presence brought me back.

Aside from the dragging middle act, I also found some points of direction awkward. There were some transitions (to the flashbacks?) and framing choices that could have still been improved.

But there are infinitely more positive things about this movie than negative.

Thematically and artistically, Ang Larawan delivers. I suppose it is to be expected of a movie affiliated and based on the work of National Artist Nick Joaquin. I haven’t read the original play or researched anymore of the movie, so anything I say now is based entirely on what I saw.

The depth of the story is clever for the fact that almost the entirety of the film takes place in a single room. The movie focuses less on action, and more on the development of its people. It is a story of relational conflicts, and intergenerational conflicts.

Two sisters named Candida and Paula Marasigan, unmarried and struggling heirs to a once-great culture, are haunted by the portrait (the titular “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino“) painted for them by their father, Lorenzo el Magnifico.

Set in 1941, the sisters remember older traditions that are now pitted against modernism, intense Americanism, and war. As with such stories, they cling on to their former prestige and privilege.

There are many things that make this seemingly dramatic and heavy story worth watching. The music, as I said, was invaluable. I can’t imagine enjoying this story as much had it only been a play (in Filipino, at that; though I understand Nick Joaquin’s original was in English). Thank you to the subtitles.

The  main and side characters were excellently portrayed. To begin with, they were excellently written –rich characters with interesting thematic implications. Without revealing too much, the stylistic treatments and contextual references for each character brought them to such life.

More than that, the acting was great; Joanna Ampil’s Best Actress Award for her portrayal as Candida is well-deserved.  Though originally I found her portrayal flat and too unsubtle in the first act of the film, by the third I could attest to the nuances and depth of her character. The juggernaut act of singing and acting is also to be applauded.

As I said, it is a movie that asks us to think and encourages us to create. I, at least, want to learn even more Spanish now, and read more old books, and go to more galleries…

Within the film are motivations that still endure now in 2018, decades and almost a century later. Perhaps these conflicts are enduring Filipino traditions as well. The two once-proud women are scared of the gossip of their neighbors; now, we are still similarly caged by people’s expectations.

People are awed by those who have travelled and gone to America, Europe and beyond –Ms. Zsa Zsa Padilla as Elsa Montes, the first person to bring the Conga line dance to the Philippines, comes to mind. This is something we have valued and continue to value as a society.

“Lorenzo el Magnifico!”, they exclaim in passing. The patriarch was absent but in shadow for most of the film. A fictional character, he was framed as a contemporary of Juan Luna and a painter of masterpieces. The Portrait (Ang Larawan) was his last great masterpiece, painted in his twilight years, as a gift –or a penance– to his youngest daughters.

It is an interesting choice of name by Nick Joaquin. Lorenzo el Magnifico is also what they called Lorenzo de’ Medici, the great patron of the arts in Florence, whose life drove and whose death ended the Renaissance. The story talks about such great transitions –the passing of the old, and the primacy of the new.

Ang Larawan focuses on the fading love for poetry and the artistic and European traditions of elite society, turned then towards contemporary art, politics, and business. A virtuous life of the arts versus materialism, survival, and “selling out”. “May sakit si Don Perico, a character says, “inaatake ng poesia!” (Don Perico is sick; it is a poetry attack!)

It reminds me twofold of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (1838) as the old warship made its last voyage at sea, signifying the turning of ages, and Kafka’s A Hunger Artist (1922), which alleges to the ephemeral quality of the starving or tortured artist, compared to the comfort of the materialist.

A few paragraphs won’t be able to give a sufficient Cliffsnotes version, of course, so I won’t even try. I think the film goes even deeper than how I understood it, which means I should watch it again (or read the play).

And finally, as mused by my mother as we discussed the movie after, the portrait constantly referred to in the movie was never shown, yet constantly debated.  Should it be sold? Donated?

The portrait is said to portray one of the scenes in the Aeneid (which I haven’t read since grade school): Aeneas carrying his father Anchises away from the burning city, and yet both characters wear the same face. Tantalizingly, we see only hints of the burning city and not much else.

Indeed, the truth and the fate of the portrait of the artist as a Filipino were reflected in the characters within the film; in Don Perico, a poet who traded his words and his soul for survival; in Mr. Javier, a driven yet uncultured youth; in vaudeville artists and conga line dancers; in Bitoy Camacho, the reporter and narrator; in Lorenzo, who fades with his guilt and his glory; in Candida and Paula, whose art is in their soul and in their renewed belief. Art endures.

The question, now, is whether this movie will endure within the Filipino consciousness. First, that begs people to watch it. Second, it begs for impact. I was looking back through my movie reviews and found that three or four years ago, Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo, was the Best Picture. I raved about the film, but I couldn’t remember a single point of it now. Will I also forget Ang Larawan? 

As the first song sings, “Intramuros, ang Maynilang lumipas / Intramuros, limot ng kasaysayan…”




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