For those who have yet to watch any of the eight official entries to the 43rd Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), Ang Larawan—the handsome and stately screen adaptation of the late National Artist for Literature and Theater Rolando Tinio and Ryan Cayabyab’s musical based on the late National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin’s enduring three-act play A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino—is a good movie to start.
Those familiar with the play—and the late National Artist for Theater and Film Lamberto Avellana’s movie version released in 1965—already know the story: A few months before World War 2 breaks out, struggling spinster sisters Candida (Joanna Ampil) and Paula (Rachel Alejandro)—loyal daughters of reclusive painter and reputed Juan Luna contemporary Don Lorenzo Marasigan—face rising pressure to sell the “gift” he gave them and earn much-needed money. But pride and principles would not let them.
That gift is the titular masterwork, which depicts Lorenzo as both the young mythological hero Aeneas and his old father Anchises, whom the former carries on his back, as they flee a burning Troy.
News of its existence has attracted the attention of family friend Bitoy Camacho (Sandino Martin), as well as poet-turned-senator Don Perico (Robert Arevalo), wife Doña Loleng (Celeste Legaspi), daughter Patsy (Cara Manglapus), and their friends Elsa Montes (Zsa Zsa Padilla) and Charlie Dacanay (Rayver Cruz).
Pressuring them to sell is the handsome but shady vaudeville piano player Tony Javier (Paulo Avelino), whom Candida and Paula took into their once-magnificent home in Intramuros as a lodger to earn additional income. Offering no help are their married older siblings Manolo (Nonie Buencamino) and Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo), who are more interested in selling the house and dividing the furniture between themselves, and the shrill intrusions of Tony’s fellow entertainers and floozies Susan (Cris Villonco) and Violet (Aicelle Santos).
Considering the wealth of on- and off-screen talent behind it, Ang Larawan is a film that demands—and earns—great admiration. There is Tinio’s luminous libretto that Cayabyab set his splendid music to and was brought to soaring life not only by the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra, but also by an ensemble that also includes dependable performers Dulce, Nanette Inventor, Jaime Fabregas, Bernardo Bernardo, Noel Trinidad, Ogie Alcasid, Jojit Lorenzo and Leo Rialp in minor roles.
Among members of the production team, cinematographer Boy Yñiguez and production designer Gino Gonzales should be singled out. Aided by colorist Marilen Magsaysay, Yñiguez shot the musical in crisp and somewhat muted hues that may recall rare, colored postwar photographs.
It reinforces the material’s inherent nostalgia for an Intramuros at its most affluent and most genteel, as well as its lament over its decline that began after the Americans took over the country.
Gonzales balances this with his authentic sets and costumes that not only ground the story, but also communicate details about the characters, as they should. I expect various award-giving bodies to recognize their efforts at the proper time.
There is no question the cast of Ang Larawan is the most formidable in any Filipino film, at least in recent memory. Theater giants Buencamino and Lauchengco-Yulo (in what is believed to be her first role speaking only in Filipino) are strong as the self-centered siblings. Meanwhile, Martin is disarming as Bitoy—in a way a stand-in for Joaquin—from whose (older) perspective the movie is told, if the uncredited Leo Martinez’s voiceovers bookending it are any indication.
Arevalo must also be singled out for his moving delivery of what I think is the musical’s most striking lyric, which is just a tiny sample of Tinio’s genius as a translator: “Hindi simple ang buhay katulad ng sining. May puwersang humuhubog sa ating landasin. Hindi tayo’ng may hawak sa kinabukasan. Nagmimiron ka lamang sa ‘yong kapalaran.”
Although a few have raised eyebrows over his casting and lack of singing prowess, Avelino delivers as Tony, a hustler who could only play the piano and not much else. He may well be an odd duck in the midst of aging yet graceful swans.
But despite the aforementioned actors’ performances, Ang Larawan belongs to Ampil and Alejandro. Previously known as one of Lea Salonga’s talented successors as Kim in the West End production of Miss Saigon years ago, Ampil dazzles in her first film. As marvelous as she is as the rigid and stern Candida, she is even more so when her character lets her defenses down, exposing her vulnerability. Her breakdown scene alone should be enough to clinch her a best actress award or two.
But strangely enough, it’s Alejandro’s equally potent turn as Paula that I was drawn to more, partly because I found her character arc to be more compelling. Many have considered Paula the weaker sister for (spoiler alert) giving in to Tony’s advances. But I choose to see her decision to give in as showing strength, as well as defiance against the conventions of her day and what was expected of someone like her.
That decision, and her romantic impulses, made her more human and, thus, more relatable.
Deserving as much praise as Ampil and Alejandro is director Loy Arcenas, an inspired choice to helm the film. His extensive theatrical background here and in America, his previous experience in handling rich and complicated female characters, and his first film—Niño, about a faded opera singer longing for the social prominence her family once had—made him suited for the job.
Although he remains faithful to the musical’s theatrical roots—for example, the actual portrait is rarely glimpsed, unlike in Avellana’s screen adaptation—the movie never feels stagy.
In a picture that shows some of the country’s most talented artists at the top of their game, none stands out more than Joaquin, who had made it his mission, both as a creative writer and as journalist par excellence Quijano de Manila, “to remember and to sing” about the country’s capital and what it once was.
Through the various incarnations of his play, including Ang Larawan, the late National Artist shows us how we, as Filipinos, have become too immersed in the present, and way too unmindful of the past and its treasures that we are yet to unearth.
He also shows how easily and indiscriminately we prioritize or even discard one set of values for another, as if we’re only shedding clothes, or skin. Through his works, he exhorts us to also remember and sing.
In a year that marks Joaquin’s birth centenary, it’s an exhortation that shouldn’t be ignored.