on nora’s two most internationally acclaimed films (short ‘reviews’)

By J. Neil C. Garcia

HIMALA (Digitally Remastered)

Revisiting Ishmael Bernal’s masterpiece, Himala, is instructive in the way all nostalgia is instructive: it affords one the chance to touch the past from one’s bearings in the present, and to instantly notice the difference in oneself—basically, how one is no longer what one used to be…

This time, Himala strikes one not so much for the unity of its vision as for its opposite—which is to say, its ambivalence, its half-heartedness, its hesitations, chiefly due (one now more keenly understands) to its imbricatedness in Marcosian largesse (filmed in the Ilocos, supported fully by the artistically inclined presidential daughter), that doubtless forced the director’s hand to downplay his critique of the religious and sociopolitical structures that promote if not tolerate the immiseration of the symbolic barrio on one hand, and on the other to ascribe the suffering of its inhabitants to the vagaries of a whimsical nature (all those congenitally malformed and misshapen bodies, and of course, the inclemencies of unpredictable weather, represented here by the protracted drought), as well as the immorality and general “unkindness” of human beings to each other.

One now also sees that this “doubleness” likewise derives from its syncretic aesthetic gestures, that distinguish it as a filmic project, at the same time that they arguably confound it—neorealistic on one hand, and nationalistically allegorical on the other. Despite the years—and their surfeit of willfully miserablistic films—one still finds, in any case, astonishing moments in both registers (for instance, the prostitute Nimia’s gritty and grisly dialogue, about rolled newspapers, bottles and fish being shoved by a gang of sadistic junkies into her vagina that, in the end, felt and looked like a squelched tomato), and the epic and riveting final scenes, that eventuate in the image of the seething and mumbling masses inching up the barren hillside on their knees, in what must have been Bernal’s emblem for the Filipino condition: stubbornly irrational and religiously devoted, if only because entirely desperate to survive.

The “demystifying” by Elsa of the miraculous, her swan song that sees her confessing to fabricating the divine visitation, the visionary’s owning up to her prevarication—none of this will prevent Filipinos from believing in the ministrations of miraculous providence, because there’s little else that they can believe in or do (Sepa actually says this to her husband, Bino, early in the film). The pathos of this hyperbole contains the kernel of Bernal’s materialist critique, which isn’t quite as pointed as it could have been, had the circumstances been different…

What hasn’t changed, however, is one’s quiet awe at Nora Aunor’s singular and soul-searing performance, which is still an astonishment to behold…

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Brillante Mendoza’s Thy Womb could’ve been more fortunately titled, and its pacing could’ve been fine-tuned here and there, but it’s doubtless a great film, soaked in the inks, forms and movements of our southern islands’ natural splendor on one hand, and entirely committed to the task of a closely observed life on the other.

This film unfolds by braiding these two rhythms into each other, as is the way of the people whose little-known story it attempts, in its own careful and admittedly limited way, to tell. Moreover, what seemingly impedes it—namely, the narrative oscillation, the “doubleness” of its vision as documentary and as drama—is revealed, in the end, to be part and parcel of its insight, as embodied in the placid greatness and numinous depth of Nora Aunor’s exceptional performance: the heroism of the devoted and barren wife, her largeness of heart and self-abnegating love for her husband, is indissociable from her world, which permeates her very being, entwined as her spirit and character must be in the weft and woof of her culture’s ever-imperiled and resolutely enduring life.

The film opens with Aunor’s character, Shaleha, midwifing a birth. It ends the same way. Her story is entirely interfolded, like a thread, into her world. The desire to allow her husband to have a child with another woman isn’t unnatural at all, in this life. Shaleha’s sacrifice is heroic, but also entirely organic in this reality. To my mind, the film succeeds in dramatizing this.

It’s not perfect, this film. But the flaws are forgivable. And they are even possibly necessary, to confound its own claims to authenticity. What Mendoza succeeds in doing, by situating Shaleha’s life so unobtrusively in this world—the weaving in and out between the dramatic and the ethnographic—is to render inevitable her decision to be selfless: it is notable, but also entirely possible, in this kind of life. The dignity of this people, caught between inexorable forces (national and global), dancing through the minefield of abject “precarity,” yearning towards the consolations of tradition, seeking again and again the truth of the spirit: a story Aunor tells so eloquently, using little else than the quiet scripture of her face.

Her performance here is probably in the top five of her very best performances, and yes, she doesn’t shirk—she never shirks—her duties as an actor, enfleshing her character to the point of defacing her own acting self (she looks every inch her age in this film, even more, and that is entirely germane to the role she is assuming). Clearly, Aunor allowed her director to guide her, but she also worked intuitively, as she always did, in her best and most memorable performances. Her best scenes here are the wordless ones. Mendoza clearly understood that Aunor’s strength lies in her face, which speaks stories without her actually saying anything. And yes: her hands and her general “form” are so eloquently utilized in this film, as well.

A particularly haunting scene is that of Aunor’s character clinging to her husband (played by Bembol Roco) in the rain, as they are paddling their way back from the mosque to their house. Again and again, the most haunting images are that of her face: as she looks at the crescent moon, which is a spiritual symbol, as well as a marker of time passing, and yes, as they make love for one last time.

Cherished, in their innermost faith, by their gracious and compassionate God, the people of Tawi-tawi dance in the midst of gunfire and depredation, hunger and drought, and it is this very same ethos that animates the barren woman’s actions, for as her own people remind her, life must be lived for others, and with hope, no matter how difficult and tight-fisted it often is… Once more, Aunor sears into our memory the persona she enacts into powerful art, and we cannot help but recognize, in the luminous alchemy of a face that’s been softened by the rheum and chastised by the exertions of eventful age, the sadness and pain (as well as horror) of the knowledge of our own forfeited happiness, as well as the glimmerings of a stubborn hope that our own abiding faiths must urge upon us.

Transformative cinema. A gem of a film.