AT last a film that reflects to the nth degree and in infinitesimal but felicitous detail a work by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin that successfully parallels his mind. “Larawan,” the musical, might seem unlikely as it has to tackle Joaquin’s unique narrative in a film with music and dancing. But it delivers Joaquin’s paean to the past, his understanding of its fated evolution to the present and an intimation of the future, all in the actions and attitudes of the people that are the focus of Joaquin’s great play, “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” with music and dancing to boot.
The role of art in everyday life is examined for what it implies and in fact is. Painting and poetry can be overshadowed by quotidian events, secular ambitions, hostile circumstances. Yet their absence can impoverish despite the materialistic accessories that they are abandoned for. Art is a definition of what is intrinsically human; it and its ramifications can also take center stage even in indifferent and difficult times when brave and enlightened human beings remember what it means to them and defend their value.
In “Larawan,” the crucible ensues when the exigencies of everyday life and art demands of a person a choice, an affirmation towards one or the other, as dramatized in the Marasigan family of erstwhile comfort and talent who have been brought low by the banality of having to meet everyday expenses and quotidian demands for monetary means which in turn exert pressure on their values.
The movie production is almost impeccable, set in an Intramuros house of pre-war vintage and furnishings, almost spartan in elegance except for the sacred portrait that becomes the center of the narrative. The costumes, particularly the traditional and vintage ternos, the hairdos and modern dresses of the American Period of the 1930s moving towards the 1940s and World War 2, plus the music; from vaudeville, jazz and mindless but entertaining ditties, they are all there in spades of authenticity. As well the new mores, the rising political elite, the social navigation that all that these evolving events demand.
The actors who play their roles are outstanding in characterization, blocking and costume as well as in delivering dialogue. I could not tell who was better, they were all good. Nonie Buencamino as Manolo Marasigan, out of Intramuros and into modernity manifested by race-track betting habits leading to a want of money and a failure of duty; Menchu Lauchengco Yulo, the mahjong player, also a Marasigan, gone frivolous and socially ambitious, both of them lusting for the house and furniture of their spinster sisters and aging father. The sisters, Candida, (Joanna Ampil) the strong one who is nevertheless vulnerable and Paula (Rachel Alejandro), the wistful, dreamy one who will rise above herself. They are the Marasigans that endure. Each of them struggling with their conscience in the division between art and life and coming to terms with what is essential.
Then there is Bitoy Camacho (Sandino Martin), the boy who knew them when, now an adult who experiences the epiphany of what are the forces that are tearing the family apart; Tony Javier, wonderfully played by Paolo Avelino, the handsome, dangerous and opportunistic boarder who disrespects the house. Then comes Robert Arevalo, who portrays poignantly the poet turned politician (Don Perico), from genteel poverty as a writer of verses to wealth and power. He too has an epiphany of what he has become.
The rest of the cast are equally well chosen for the roles that they play to perfection. The two vaudeville stars (Cris Villonco and Aicelle Santos), who are so into their roles, their real selves are so disguised as to be unrecognizable. The conga dancers are excellently cast and deliver the goods. And Celeste Legaspi scores with her singing and pre-war era ternos as well as her comic role as Senator Perico’s spouse.
And in the end, the tertulia crowd comes to life again in of-the-era costumes, entertaining dialogue building up to the climax, one more dramatic affirmation of who they are, what they stand for even in the face of war, destruction, destitution.
The music of Ryan Cayabyab is right on the note in creativity and melody. The challenge was huge – turning a dramatic, poignant, almost painful tale into a musical. He succeeds without diluting its depth or meaning, indeed reinforcing what Nick Joaquin meant to say in his prose. And that is here brilliantly adapted in Filipino by the late Rolando Tinio, National Artist for Theater, who has also adapted Shakespeare into the national language.
I congratulate everyone who is part of this film, from the director, Loy Arcenas, to the photographer, the editor, the music ensemble, the set designer and the producers. And all those who had a hand in bringing it to this level of art and thoughtful entertainment. They have brought us a classic. The audience clapped and I was moved to tears.
If I seem to be going over the top, see the movie yourself and tell me it ain’t so.