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Remembering Ishmael Bernal

MANILA, Philippines - Sixteen years ago on June 2, director Ishmael Bernal (who is now National Artist for Film) passed away without so much as a by your leave.

Two days earlier before he passed away, he was coaching actress Malu de Guzman in her stage monologue to be mounted in the director’s famous Kasalo Café in Quezon City.

On the recent occasion of the 16th year of his passing away, I’d like to recall Bernal’s last true-to-life episodes.

What I do remember now is that many reel and real episodes in the life of Bernal were indicative of the person and his unique sense of humor and satire.

Some memorable flashbacks:

In this scene from one of his films, Pabling, its actor William Martinez takes a taxi ride with a pot of the newly-bought ornamental plant not yet quite a-bloom. Wading through the heavy traffic, Martinez had spent hours on the road that by the time he got to his destination, the potted plant was already in full bloom.

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When Kasalo partner Ed Manalo learned that the film director was in the hospital, he reacted nonchalantly knowing that wasn’t the first time Bernal was hospitalized.

“When he was admitted at the Heart Center one day in December of some years back,” Manalo recalled, “he couldn’t stand staring at the ceiling of the hospital room. Bored, he fled the Heart Center room and proceeded to the Kasalo Café a block away with the bottle of dextrose still attached to him. So when I heard he was hospitalized again, I imagined it wouldn’t be long when he’d bolt again and re-appear at Kasalo in the nick of time.”

In the early ‘70s, one evening in this favorite artist’s hang-out called Indios Bravos, stage and film actor Bernardo Bernardo saw the seemingly burdened film director seated alone and with a melancholic face reflected by the light from a lampshade.

“He was alone and suddenly I saw a tear fell on the other cheek. ‘Bernie, is anything wrong?’ I asked him. Then I got the surprise of my life. Mamaya tumawa na. Nag-e-exercise lang pala ng technique ng pag-iyak.”

But Bernal’s sense of humor was something else.

Continued Bernardo: “His sense of wit and satire is of the grand style. Ang galing-galing niyang mag-dedma ng mga witticisms, raised eyebrows and all, and with that omnipresent cigarette. With a dramatic toss of the hair, swak ang target niya.

His first film, A, Ewan, Basta Sa Maynila Pa Rin Ako, was aborted due to a falling-out with his first producers, then movie couple Eddie Rodriguez and Liza Moreno of Virgo Production. The couple wanted the original script revised here and there, and the then very young Bernal could only take so much.

In his last film Wating, a mayor ravishes his young find in a roomful of religious icons. It was probably his way of unmasking politicians with high religious profile but who, in reality, were the opposite of piety.

Bernal’s sense of humor was acerbic, the late stage director-TV scriptwriter and National Artist for Theater Rolando Tinio had once said. Because when some sense of values he holds dear is assaulted, the master satirist in him emerges.

Recalled Tinio when he was still alive: “Bernie is definitely a colorful personality but the color of his personality stems from something very deep. It is not just an external thing.”

Film director Marilou Diaz-Abaya redefined Bernal’s sense of humor: “Most of the time, it is sick and black, sometimes very cynical but always so rich and enriching even at its blackest. The sense of humor and satire in his films gives you extraordinary explorations and insights about the most ordinary thing like a chaotic traffic.”

But even in his death, his life looked like a slice from cinema vérité. A few hours after his death, four acclaimed directors argue in the morgue as to what kind of make-up he should have, what sort of dress he would wear, even his hairstyle.

Even the first night of the wake looked like a memorial gala concert. De Guzman rendered a monologue conceptualized by the director himself. Maria Callas was singing Pace, Pace Mio Dio from Forza del Destino (Force of Destiny) and there was Mozart and Beethoven which followed the rest of the nights at the wake.

But his last few days were revealing of the grey November in the director’s soul.

Preparing for the Jack Yabut dance demo in the upper floor of his Kasalo Café, Bernal asked his assistant Manalo to bring down the karaoke. As Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht Musik was heard on the machine, the director casually told Manalo, “That’s beautiful. You should play that on my wake, okay?” to which his assistant shot back with, “You fool, don’t think about it!”

Again on the same night in his Kasalo Café, he was musing after speaking at the International Children Film Festival. “Come to think of it,” he had said, “I have not done any film for children.”

Then there was this long silence after which he asked Manalo, “Ed, do you think I could still have kids?”

Manalo answered a firm yes, he could still have one.

But on knowing that he would never have one, he comforted himself by saying, “Si Alex Baluyut (the news photographer) nga wala ring anak at saka si Mulong (Romulo Sandoval, the poet).”

One Friday night, the director was the butt of jokes when somebody found an old picture of him as a seven-year-old boy holding a guitar and it was passed around.

If Bernal had become a father, he would certainly have a boy (or a girl) — the equivalent of the image of the young boy in the old picture found at the café. (By coincidence, the son of the late actor-opera singer Gamaliel Viray and stage and film actress Amable Quiambao was named Ishmael after the film director they had worked with in Himala).

On top of mulling fatherhood on the week he died, he was busy supervising the cultural calendar for the Kasalo Monday night regular treat, Lunesining (Monday event, literally translated).

Scheduled on the week he died was a one-woman monologue by De Guzman. Bernal conceptualized the show with the actress and billed it Woman Mystique… And Mistakes.

For this monologue, De Guzman explored her life as single mother starting from her colegiala days to her first love and the love child delivered in a charity ward to her return to theater and then her film invasion. When De Guzman gave birth to her love child, her family was prone to regard it as a case of Ang Babaeng Napariwara.

“You did a script of your show,” Bernal remarked when he saw the yellow pad during their Friday rehearsal.

“Yes, I did,” De Guzman replied. “This is my life.”

The director remarked that he would probably be late for the Monday night show as he would be coming from another appointment. “I hope you don’t walk out on me for the second time otherwise I’ll include you in monologue,” De Guzman reminded Bernal.

The first time Bernal walked out of De Guzman’s monologue was during the acting workshop at the Film Center initiated by Laurice Guillen and Johnny Delgado. In this workshop, Bernal and De Guzman were classmates.

In one session, De Guzman did her Abandonment Scene from her single motherhood days starting with this scene where she was giving birth in a charity ward. That was one exercise where participants were encouraged to pour out their anger and inner insecurities.

In the middle of her Abandonment Scene, Bernal walked away for reasons she didn’t fathom at once. 

She would have an inkling when she realized the director was sporting his mother’s surname, not his father’s or his stepfather’s name.

Gradually, she realized that her scene had resonance with the director’s private life.

On the last rehearsal for Woman Mystique… And Mistakes, Bernal was both stage director and stage manager. He cued De Guzman’s tapes, he blocked her stage movements. 

De Guzman said she could cue the tapes herself but Bernal intervened as he insisted, “Let me do this. I like doing this,” as he put the tapes in one container.

In one part where De Guzman was staging Ang Maghintay Ng Walang Hanggan, she noticed Bernal with that far-away look. It turned out that the song was one of his favorites.

Then the director told De Guzman, “Baka mag-iyakan naman tayo sa monologue mo. I don’t want this. May paraan ng pag-kuwento na may tama.

De Guzman tried that approach and the waiters at Kasalo were wondering what those volley of laughter was about in that rehearsal. It was Bernal laughing his head off in De Guzman’s delivery room scene.

In between rehearsal breaks, the two got to know each other better. Bernal would ribbed De Guzman: “So you write poetry. Ang balita ko profesora ka rin pala sa UP Masscom. So you’re multi-talented. Akala ko Japayuki ka lang.”

To De Guzman, those were his famous last words.

Again, De Guzman reminded Bernal, “Huwag kang mawawala sa Lunes kung hindi isasama kita sa monologue.”

As it turned out, Bernal passed away Sunday and De Guzman’s Monday show was moved from Kasalo Café to the UP Chapel where she performed on an improvised stage alongside Bernal’s coffin.

It was a surreal scene De Guzman performing beside a dead director who rehearsed her only two days before.

For the first time in her performing days, the actress took a bottle of beer to loosen her up and then went inside her car and shouted her grief. “I had to let it all out before the performance at baka manginig ako o kaya baka ako naman ang atakihin sa puso.”

By coincidence, on the night of her performance with that surreal setting, she couldn’t find the minus one cassette of the song, Sana’y Maghintay Ang Walang Hanggan, the director’s favorite. 

And she couldn’t help saying to herself, “Direk, you walked out on me again.”

In the wake, De Guzman got to know the director’s extended family as well.

Present during the necrological service were his six half-sisters and seven half-brothers from his real father, Pacifico Ledesma from Jaro, Iloilo.

He was a stock-broker and one of the past presidents of the Manila Stock Exchange.

Bernal actually met his 13 half-brothers and sisters only after the death of his father — also of heart attack — in 1972.

Antonio Ledesma, the eldest of the 14 Ledesma brood (Bernal was the 14th from a family involving three mothers, one of whom died), met his celebrity half-brother only in the late ’70s when he came home from Calgary, Canada after his father’s death.

“It was my stepmother who told me that there was one more brother from my father’s earlier relationship,” Ledesma, who is into education and psychological counseling, said.

Bernal was overjoyed when he realized he was not alone that he actually attended all the family reunions in one house in Fairview during Christmas and New Year. In time, he was a doting uncle to his nephews and nieces during these occasions. 

“He was a great uncle and a very compassionate one,” Ledesma said, “He never told us about his achievements which we only read about in the papers.”

When he lay dying, Ishmael was worried about leaving his mother. He asked his nephew, Bayani Santos, to take his mother away from the room to spare her from the grief of seeing a dying son.

Then he asked someone to call his brothers and sisters.

Like De Guzman, director Marilou Diaz-Abaya also felt Bernal walked out on her when he died. A few days before he died, they were supposed to go together to this Film Academy awards night. They have decided what to wear when Bernal begged off saying he had a bad stomach and a bad backache.

“The next thing I knew he was dead,” Abaya recalled. “Napaka-abrupt di ba? So unpredictable. But I am not going to take this against him.”

The two became soul mates when Bernal saw Abaya’s film Brutal and she got this congratulatory note from him. At that time, Abaya didn’t know him personally but she was in awe of him already.

A few days after that note, Abaya was hanging out in this sleazy beer joint at the corner of EDSA and P. Tuazon with husband Manolo when the door opened and silhouette appeared and a booming voice came, “Is there a Marilou Diaz-Abaya in this room?”

The lady director reluctantly raised her hand. He marched to her table and then sat down.

The next dialogue came even as she had yet to recover from that dramatic entrance.

Bernal: “Now that we are friends, you might explain to me how it works that you and your husband work together on the set. Does that help the film? Where do you think this will lead? What is the course of your career and what is the relationship between your marriage and the film that you make?”

All in one breath.

All that Abaya could say was, “May I go to the bathroom to pee?”

Then came Bernal’s rejoinder: “Sure. But I just hope you have the answer for me by the time you are through peeing.”

As Abaya admitted, Bernal was her severest critic and an intellectual sparring partner. He was a part of her film life and even her personal life. She recalls Bernal pacing back and forth in the waiting room during the delivery of her baby.

Abaya remembered Bernal for many things.

Said she: “He demonstrated that the integrity of the artist is not compromising and that it is not negotiable.”

Santos, his nephew, had a fierce encounter with his celebrity uncle when he noticed that he was borrowing a measly amount of P8,000 from him and yet he kept on turning down P40,000-up worth of movie offers one after another because he couldn’t stand the scripts.

Then he suggested, “Uncle Mael, why don’t you just accept the offer and revise the script?”

The nephew was not prepared for the violent reaction he got.

Recalled Santos of that encounter: “For the first time, I saw fire in his eyes as though gasping for breath in deep fury and then he roared at me. ‘You want me to accept those bad scripts? You want to see blood drip in the set? There will be blood all over the set if I accept this.”

How Bernal is remembered by his kin and colleagues belies the façade behind his thunder and lightning.

His late mother, Elena Bernal Toledo, once said that when her son loved a friend, it was unconditional love.

Mother and son shared a love for music and the arts.

A touching sight in one Antipolo concert of Cecile Licad and Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses was Ishmael Bernal escorting his mother to the concert area.

“I think my son inherited love for music from me,” she once said.

Tinio once pointed out, “Bernie gave the impression of being a very bitchy and uncharitable man but I am convinced it is only by way of concealing the fact that he is a tender-hearted, loving and compassionate person. I will remember him as a patient mentor who taught me the rudiments of scriptwriting, huwag ka lang tatanga-tanga.”

Abaya once made a parallelism on both Bernal and Lino Brocka. She once pointed out: “They both made films in the most challenging times and they responded with valor. Their kind of artistic nobility is now dead.”

  Brocka and Bernal probably had a pact before the latter died.

  During her last Kasalo visit, my daughter Kerima recalled how Bernal kept on saying during the screening of Orapronobis that Philippine cinema died with Brocka.

Brocka died on the corner of Matalino St. and East Ave., just a few blocks away from Bernal’s Kasalo Café.

By coincidence, Bernal also died on East Ave. at the Heart Center.

If he didn’t, he could very well be defying his fate again and escaping to his Kasalo hang-out, dextrose bottle and all and discussing art, culture and politics and the not-so hopeless state of Philippine cinema.

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