One of the better films in the official selection of the first ToFarm Film Festival appears to have a tale somewhat remote from the express rationale by which the film fest is mounted.
Instead of conjuring imagery of bounty out of the cultivated soil of some faraway agricultural heartland, audiences get a disturbing portrait of gripping and unabated urban squalor in Paolo Villaluna’s Pauwi Na.
The screenplay that its director co-wrote with fellow filmmaker Ellen Ramos drew its framework from a newspaper feature about a downtrodden family going home to the province in their pedicab—their only means of transportation—must have been intended as some paean to the tenacity, resiliency and indomitable spirit of the hard-up and the toiling classes.
Boasting of topnotch performances from its six principal players, the film commands a hefty level of engagement from start to finish akin to reading a book straight—in one sitting without having to drop it at any point. Black humor alternates with acerbic drama —the better to flesh out predicaments of impoverishment notwithstanding arguments of poverty porn that some may accuse the film of. There is also a dose of surreal touches, theater of the absurd and hovering elements of the morbid and the macabre.
Bembol Roco and Cherry Pie Picache perform as husband and wife with two grown-up kids. The son has a blind wife who is pregnant. The daughter is single but not without her own dream of meeting her match even by means unconventional. They live in one household among a community of informal settlers and are joined by a pet dog and a Jesus figure that only the expectant mom in the family sees and converses with. Fed up with the destitution of the city, they decide to move back to their rural roots despite the odds and the very implausibility that such may entail.
The film is extraordinary for the treatment of its material. The gutter language, vulgar behavior and verbal brawls by which the characters interact with each other induce authentic exploration of the film’s backdrop and milieu. It is a triumph of masterful direction further enhanced by the sheer virtuosity of its assembly of competent actors.
While people may frown on yet another dramatization of the story of the poor and their sordid conditions, the film remains commendable for its filmmakers’ determination to hold up a mirror to decent society, reveal—warts and all—what’s wrong with it and somehow hint at a possible prescription for its necessary overhaul, in order for those who have less to get a greater share of the prosperity concentrated in the hands of the well-off few.
As this may sound like asking for the moon, such nevertheless reminds one of the more overriding function of all art and in this case, cinema: to be a channel of revelation and revolution, of critique and change. Films like Pauwi Na are significant and must not stop being made for as long as the inequities in the world are in place destroying lives, fostering savagery and posing in effect quite a grave threat to the entire human race and the civilization known to all.
Nonoy Lauzon is a Senior Member of the Film Desk of the Young Critics Circle.