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Away from home

Closer To Home brings to light a phenomenon most often looked upon with a jaundiced eye, not because of the element of ordinariness that somehow has leeched on to it, but because this portrait of a third world’s social dysfunction (not unique to the Philippines, the situation is replicated in third world countries) has been relatively ignored by various political leaderships and administrations — and worst, largely accepted with disdain and cynical resignation as an unpleasant fact of life.

It is a riveting film touching on the convoluted evils created by society’s imbalances and the cross-cultural differences of two worlds. An exposition of two societies, two disparate yet similar families, two deeply-feeling contrary personalities with totally contrasting ideas of what “family” should constitute, the film — about a loving Filipino family (Dalisay’s) held hostage by poverty and social inequality and at the mercy of centuries-old feudal-type (in)justice — is set in an idyllic third world countryside juxtaposed against the first-world’s own unsettling enigma and communal dysfunction (equally regarded with cryptic cynicism in the “land of milk and honey”) and represented by a lower-middle class New York family (Dean’s), where relationships (in sharp contrast to Dalisay’s family) have been soured by acrimony, bitter jealousies and deeply-rooted resentment. While Dean’s messianic hope for love comes in the form of a mail-order bride, Dalisay sees the much-older Dean as a passage to the land that holds the key to her younger sister’s survival. (Luningning, the sister, has a congenital heart problem and needs urgent surgery). And while the conflict stems from mutual ideals — Dean pining for the gratification of love and family, Dalisay embodying its sacrificial aspect — the struggle and conflict of the two main characters put together by the transaction and tyranny of love materialize into a crisis. Consequently, the film stirs confusion as the viewer is left to empathize with both characters who assume the dichotomous roles of both hero and villain. Almost immediately, the perceptive viewer realizes that both are at odds with society at large and are inevitable victims of an oppressive state of existence.

What is especially notable is the remarkable feat of how the director has added depth to the universal concepts of hope, love and family despite the fact that the characters are devoid of theatrical embellishments.

The dialogues are utterly without histrionic flair and the emotions are raw and vivid. The main characters unfold as part of a bigger picture and have thus not fallen into the trap of becoming one-dimensional.

The plight of Dalisay’s family, for example, is an unpretentious take on the disturbing reality of impoverished farmers who toil the land with blood, sweat and tears, only to be treated no more than slaves. The issues align with the present-day crisis of Philippine society — landlords in rural areas who have no room for compassion for the same people who made it possible for them to live in the lap of luxury; and who cannot part with a speck of their riches without laying down an ultimatum tantamount to, and in the end totally undermines, the survival of the farmer’s family and the little they have in the world.

Likewise, it subtly addresses the stereotypical, derogatory notion that a mail-order bride is no more than someone who looks upon marriage to a foreigner as a ticket to the promise land. But the film transforms it into a meaningful sacrifice that is both unexpected and justified.

And those who scoff at the pathetic desperation of foreigners who treat love as a transaction, as a mere process of order-taking from third world countries, are in for a pleasant surprise. That — in search of the dramatic cure for their bleak existence — they (who really seek a wife-cum-homemaker/ideal housekeeper) would turn to a place (Dalisay’s village) where westerners are worshipped is an irony effectively woven into the film.

The foreshadowing is deceptive and the element of surprise in the psychological cliff-hanger further adds to the irony of the situation. One would have expected two souls who have placed their hopes upon each other, though with different intentions and conflicting processes, to brazenly go against all odds to resolve the crisis. Closer To Home is a palatable feast for those hungry for a meaningful film that leaves a lingering and yes, maximum impact and goes beyond the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

* * *

Longing for home By Vicki Jugo-Litiatco

It is truly baffling that Closer To Home, a film produced, directed and co-written by a non-Filipino, the Italian-American Joseph Nobile, depict — more than any other films of the same genre produced by local filmmakers (except perhaps for a few you can count on your fingers) — the Filipino’s fundamental (inherent) nature as exemplified in the main Filipino character (Dalisay): Her essence of selfless caring and sacrificial love, her courageous spirit and her incredible do-or-die fortitude.

But what is more mystifying is that the film, adroitly-and-sensitively-crafted and expertly produced — in all the years since it was first made in 1996 and subsequently released in Manila theaters the same year — has created more sustained interest and received much more commendations in countries other than (in the country) where the story was culled from.

More remarkable is the fact that tributes coming from the diametrically wealthier western countries did not stop at mere accolades and fervent acclamations but actually went several steps forward — with a number of those who sang hosannas putting (forgive the irreverence) their money where their mouth is.

Industry and academe, in spontaneous volition, came together to ensure that the film’s powerful message will touch not only a wider spectrum, but impact the segment of society with a tangible positional power, to ensure that insights gained and social and moral lessons learned will neither “languish” on screen — nor fade away on paper — but will induce awareness in their own milieu; and ultimately, beyond their elite clique, “infect” and benefit in continuum universal society. Thus, you have universities in the US and Canada going as far as to include the film in their college (and in some instances, even high school) curriculum.

Watching and “living through” Nobile’s Closer To Home is without a doubt a retrospective expedition.

(A meaningful experience I would have missed had my sister Mari not introduced me to the film and encouraged me — to be quite honest, virtually “twisting my arm” — to watch it.)

A film with a down-to-earth, common sense quality — or fidelity to real-life Philippine situations — it reaches into the deep recesses of the viewer’s soul and mindset, making him pause and for one, reflect on and appreciate his blessings amid the pain.

Its theme may be considered commonplace but as the finished product shows, Nobile had both feet on the ground while making the film. His use of fast- paced and slow-paced scenes in alternate fashion is superb and very effective. While the storyline is not new, the treatment (in contrast to the usual handling of most local films) is refined and classy, touching yet down-to-earth; the interlacing of the characters’ personalities and angst dexterously executed; and the approach matter-of-fact yet acutely sensitive. (By the film’s end, I found myself heaving a sigh of relief at the absence of the usual histrionics that characterize many Filipino films.) Director Nobile’s skillful handling and acute sensitivity are so palpable midway into the film as Dalisay, in a calesa, leaves the peace and quiet of her paradise village while (Ryan Cayabyab’s) Paraiso is sung in the background. That short yet stirringly potent scene, with its excellent visuals and hauntingly beautiful music, is both declarative and prophetic. For Dalisay, it is paradise lost (though she does not know it yet); but sadly (because of Dean’s dysfunctional life), when she finally arrives at her destination — the country many Filipinos regard as the greener pasture — fails to be paradise regained.

The cinematic journey evoked in me a gamut of emotions (a lot of them distressing and at times, angry especially at the leering, vicious bugaw so realistically portrayed by Vic Diaz); and gave me myriad insights on, and I would say deeper appreciation of, the Filipino family’s ethnicity (its vulnerabilities and amazing resilience) — that, ironically, most of the locally-produced films I’ve watched fell short of.

It also sent through me a cathartic sense of relief for two reasons. First, on the emotional track: With the help of her more experienced cousin Tess (who advances the money for the usurious loan’s liquidation and hires the erstwhile provincial lass as a waitress in the bar/restaurant in New York that her lived-in American partner owns) — Dalisay solves with relative ease the financial dilemma she and her father are trapped in; and thus, thrashed the imminent loss of “home and hearth” and farmland (that used as collateral to the loan that financed her trip).

And second, on the professional track, the unpredictability of the denouement and (thank God!) uncharacteristic conclusion to the film is indeed a most welcome deviation. Anyhow, the last element further gives the foreign-produced film redemptive value — its excellence, among other factors, lending credence to and compensating for the many, so-so films of the same vein produced locally in the past.

Nobile must have a special acumen for spotting good talents, to name two: The neophyte Madeline Ortaliz (who played with brilliance the deeply-intense and utterly sensitive yet unyielding Dalisay) and the experienced-but-not-so-famous John Michael Bolger (who played the deeply troubled “searcher” Dean with profound realism). Having chosen well his leading actors, Nobile fully maximized his directorial skills. Ortaliz’s explicitly effective and deftly-controlled acting, however, threatens to dispute the fact that she had never acted and appeared in any movie before Closer to Home. Indeed, it is difficult to comprehend that one wet-behind-the-ears can deliver and perhaps, even give teachers of method acting, a technique acquired through intensive and disciplined training, a run for their money. (Lee Strasberg Studios, take note!)

Even the local actors playing the secondary characters (i.e. Jonee Gamboa as the father and Lou Veloso as his cousin) are respected yet low-profile theater and character actors, long distinguished for their consistently excellent performances.

The actors’ overall poignant performance and the film’s piquant dialogue presented in passionate yet laid-back fashion should make watching the movie, for anyone, a worthwhile venture and time well-spent.

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