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Milan: Feast for the eyes, great food for the soul

From the late ’60s up to the early ’70s – when the exchange rate was only P7=$1-came a trend in Philippine cinema that had local movie companies shooting films that showcased famous landmarks abroad. Premiere Productions, for instance, made quite a number of these films in Spain: the blockbuster hit El Pinoy Matador with Dolphy and Pilar Pilapil, Once Upon a Time with Cocoy Laurel and Lollipops and Roses, also with Laurel and Nora Aunor – plus Don Johnson who according to Digna Santiago, received $500 for playing support to one local actor.

Amalia Fuentes’ AM Productions also made a couple of movies filmed abroad: Sta. Teresa de Avila and those light dramas with Liezl that were shot all over Europe and also in the United States.

This trend in the movies stopped because of the travel ban during the Martial Law years, but returned a decade later in the late ’70s up to the early ’80s. Vilma Santos did a lot of these films: Pinay American Style, Romansa and Ayaw Kong Maging that were all done in US and Miss X in the Netherlands.

When the value of the peso, however, began to shrink after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983, this trend never returned to local films – with the exception of a few movie companies like Star Cinema, which produced Sana Maulit Muli and American Adobo that were both shot in America.

Directed by Olivia Lamasan, Sana Maulit Muli will always remain one of my favorite films because of its excellent production values, relevant storyline and the great chemistry between Lea Salonga and Aga Muhlach.

also done abroad (all over Italy), also by Lamasan and also produced by Star Cinema, does not exactly measure up to the excellent qualities of Sana Maulit Muli, which is so good a film, it was voted Best Picture by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino in 1993.

however, is still a must-see fare for lovers of film. Written by Raymond Lee and Lamasan, the film is about a man who goes on a long and difficult journey in search of his wife. Shades of Julio Madiaga looking for his Ligaya Paraiso? No, Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag transported to Milan it is not.

Starring Piolo Pascual and Claudine Barretto, the story of Milan begins in the Philippines with Piolo being abandoned by his wife (Iza Calzado) who had to go to Italy supposedly in search of a better-paying job. Lovesick, he gives up everything at home and illegally enters Italy in the hope of finding his wife who had long severed communications with him.

In Milan, Piolo meets Claudine and other Filipinos working as domestic helpers who all help him start a new life on foreign shores. It is also here where he discovers a new love.

Unfortunately, Milan opens to a bad start. From the beginning of the film, it is already noisy and assaulting to the eardrums – with everyone shouting and talking in loud voices like they’re playing to an audience that is hard of hearing. (If they’re not deaf yet, there’s a chance they will be by the end of the movie).

When the Pinoy delegation, for instance, illegally enters Italy through the forested border, they are all so irritatingly noisy you’d wish they all got deported. But I guess the purpose of Lamasan here is to provide a contrast to that suspenseful moment where they shut their peepholes after they are almost caught by the border police. That scene admittedly is effective and works quite well.

Actually, in spite of the fact that it is noisy, the entire film works and Lamasan works wonders with the material of Milan. The story is very relevant because it opens our eyes to the sad plight of the domestic helpers in Italy (and there are thousands and thousands of them there). Their lives are definitely harsher than those TNTs in America (but I suppose easier than those OFWs in Arab countries). In Milan, we see them practically killing themselves by taking on two or three jobs to be able to send money home while at the same time fighting off loneliness.

The fine performances of both Piolo and Claudine help Lamasan realize the materials of Milan on the big screen. On the part of Piolo – who had always been a wonderful performer (he was already good in his launching film, Lagarista), he was able to convey various layers of emotions in the most effective manner all throughout the movie. You feel his sadness, desperation and helplessness in this foreign land. But at the same time, there are moments you want to just punch him in the face because his screen character can be arrogant and a braggart. These little nuances that can only be done by a sensitive actor, he is able to display most brilliantly in Milan.

Claudine’s performance, on the other hand, would have been even better had she been made to tone down the delivery of her dialogues a bit. But as it is, she is already very good in this film. She is amazing in this breakdown scene where all you have to do is look at her eyes to see her carrying all the hurts of the world.

The supporting cast members also deliver convincing enough performances – at least some of them (the rest go through their roles like first-time participants in an acting workshop). Noteworthy is the performance of Ilonah Jean as a domestic helper who has a family back home but is driven by loneliness into the arms of another man. Iza Calzado (the star of GMA 7’s new soap Te Amo) is also very good in her role as the missing wife of Piolo.

But aside from those inspired performances from some of the actors, Milan also boasts of great production values. For one thing, filming is not limited indoors (unlike in American Adobo, which is claustrophobic at times). The local viewer will get so see famous Italian tourist spots through this movie: the Spanish steps in Rome, the gondolas of Venice, etc. (But how I wish they were a little more successful at controlling the onlookers.)

But like in Sana Maulit Muli, Olivia Lamasan is wise enough not to have turned Milan into a senseless travelogue.

While Milan is definitely a feast for the eyes, its socially relevant theme also makes it a great food for the soul.

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