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A thousand words

Portrait of the Artist as Filipino
Directed by Lamberto Avellana

CONFESSION: when I saw Lamberto Avellana’s revered film adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s classic play Portrait of the Artist as Filipino some (mumble mumble) years ago, I wasn’t thrilled. It was an adaptation of a stage play that at first glance looked unapologetically stagy, complete with well-timed entrances and exits, and its actors spoke a Spanish-accented English I’d never heard in a Filipino film before. It was filmed in an understated style, and after the low angles and looming closeups and deep shadows of Gerry de Leon’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo felt like a step backwards, a middlebrow work of art.

Viewing this restored version (financed partly by the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), partly by Mike De Leon, son of the film’s producer Manuel De Leon) and painstakingly rehabilitated by the L’Immagine Ritrovata was a revelation: the image is crisper, the mono sound clearer, the film’s very style effortlessly pellucid, and essential to expressing its theme.

Is much of the film confined to a single location, the longtime residence of the Marasigans? Yes, but it’s a magnificent residence (the 150-year-old Yatco-Yaptinchay house, found by the filmmakers in the town of Biñan, Laguna, now gone), one of those old-style mansions with massive stone foundations, richly dark narra staircase and doors, soaring ceilings, capiz windows, intricately carved furniture, glass chandeliers — if I had to be confined I wouldn’t mind being confined here. Avellana’s camera peers into rooms and hallways, allowing the wood furniture to speak for themselves, standing witnesses to a passing age. It’s Avellana’s response to Hitchcock’s challenge of telling a two-hour story in a confined space, less exhibitionist but drenched in nostalgia — Mike Velarde’s melancholic score setting the mood, the camera barely able to rouse itself from its dreamy lethargy. The lethargy however is a pose: the camera pans and glides and reframes its characters, draws in close to better hear crucial snatches of conversation, but does so unobtrusively, and you must pay attention to know it’s doing anything (the crisp, cleaned-up image helps). Avellana’s camera is a modern intruder to an old shrine — the family patriarch is said to have known the heroes of the Filipino revolution — but so modest a presence you’d think it belonged with the antique furnitures, or was equipment that existed before 1895.

As for the English — Filipino films have used Tagalog dialogue for so long so often it’s jarring to hear exceptions. Avellana’s own Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (Huk in a New Life) is narrated by the director himself in English; recently there have been films in Cebuano (Damgo ni Eleuteria [Dream of Eleuteria]) and Ilonggo (Yanggaw [Affliction]), a welcome development. But English for Portrait makes sense; this was 40 years into the American occupation, and Nick Joaquin along with a number of his contemporaries (Bienvenido Santos, F. Sionil Jose) started their careers in this period — writing and speaking in the language was encouraged, even fashionable. And it’s a beautifully melodic form of English, with pronunciation and cadences distinctly Castillan, decades away from the flatter, more Hollywood-influenced speech my generation grew up using.

Joaquin’s play revolves around the eponymously titled painting hung in the Marasigan home; it’s Don Lorenzo Marasigan’s last masterpiece: Retrato del Artista como Filipino, a huge canvas depicting a grim faced Aenas carrying an even grimmer Anchises on his back, away from the burning city of Troy — Don Lorenzo (Pianing Vidal) has bequeathed the work to his two unmarried daughters Candida (Daisy Avellana) and Paula (Naty Crame-Rogers) for them to keep or sell as they see fit. A boarder they have taken into their house, Tony Javier (the reptilian Conrad Parham), has found an American buyer willing to pay $2,000 (around $37,500 in 2020 dollars). Will Candida and Paula sell the painting — sell out in effect — or will they somehow earn enough money teaching Spanish and giving piano lessons to keep themselves afloat? Will they give in to pressure from their more successful siblings Pepang (Sarah Joaquin) and Manolo (Nick Agudo) to put Don Lorenzo in hospital care, sell the house, move out?

Pepang and Manolo represent the ever-practical, constantly disapproving middle class, who see their older sisters as hopelessly out-of-touch eccentrics; they reveal their true motives in a gem of a comic scene where they roam the house squabbling over which furniture will go to whom once the property is sold. Tony Javier and Bitoy (Vic Silayan) are the sleeker, even more predatory younger generation, who are not above using old friendships (Candida and Paula once babysat Bitoy) or even sexual appeal (Paula has a simmering crush on Tony) to get what they want from the spinsters.

Daisy Avellana’s Candida stands above them all. She’s Joaquin’s more demure Blanche DuBois, a faded lady trying to hold the tatters of her dignity together. When Senator Don Perico (Koko Trinidad) visits the pair and makes the gentle but insistent argument that they can better care for their father and themselves by selling the house, Candida responds with a grand appeal to Don Perico’s younger self, to the poet he used to be, composing alongside Don Lorenzo so many years ago. The chastened senator admits that Candida and her father (note the inclusion) stand “contra mundum” — against the world. She’s what Don Lorenzo in his prime must have been like, turning that crumbling mansion into an alternate world where time remains frozen while the rest of the world flows past. She recalls Philip K. Dick’s John Isidore, a social outcast sealed into a dusty apartment with piles of “kipple” (his word for useless junk) about him  — only Candida strikes a more defiant attitude, and celebrates the accumulating kipple.

Naty Crame-Rogers’ Paula acts as Candida’s foil, the more obedient more childlike sibling who takes all her cues from her (presumably) older sister — all the more reason to note her presence, as she quietly and with childlike simplicity breaks out of the sisters’ state of suspended animation and takes direct action.

At one point Senator Don Perico gazes at the old man’s picture and articulates its meaning: that Don Lorenzo can only save himself, there is no next generation to carry his burden for him — as sharply poignant a metaphor for the artist’s loneliness as anything in Philippine literature, and a sentiment Joaquin himself must have often felt. The moment seemed too on the nose at first glance, till I realized what Don Perico wasn’t saying: that the portrait was of Don Lorenzo and his younger self; that the children and wife (who isn’t even mentioned at any point in the play) are absent. That this is also a portrait of self-absorption — a necessary element, I suspect, as most great artists I know or have read about seem to need that bit of egotism to create (“I am special hence what I do is special”). That Don Lorenzo in bequeathing the self-portrait like an albatross on his two spinster daughters is in effect condemning them to a living death — a fate the two sisters ultimately affirm by joining him willingly. That Joaquin with this play reveals more than what he possibly intended about an artist’s thirst for martyred immortality, and how much that immortality costs.

Final note, about the film’s fairly literal style: most stagings of Portrait have the actors peering up at an empty frame, leaving Don Lorenzo’s painting to the audience’s imagination. Avellana gives us a huge canvas stretched across the wall, towering over its viewers. The work itself (conceived apparently by Maning P. de Leon) is impressive, looking somewhat in advance of what art was like in the 1940s (not in the world, not with Picasso around, but at least in the Philippines) — the film may be set before World War 2, but Don Lorenzo apparently has some insight into the future. The literalness grates — why show the painting? Why not continue using that angled shot where Avellana’s camera gazed down on awestruck viewers? The payoff I suspect comes in the film’s climax (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film!) when childlike Paula does what she feels she must do, take a knife to the canvas. Her blade tearing at the old man’s precious masterwork has a satisfyingly transgressive sound and feel, like a virgin’s underwear being ripped apart — something you don’t get with an unseen painting.

Still perhaps not my favorite Avellana (that would be Badjao, and the pleasurable Pag-asa) but a great film, and for once I fully felt the greatness.

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