Sabel: Heaven in mind
- Joel David () - July 11, 2004 - 12:00am
Sabel is the type of film, now rarely produced, that ought to serve as reminder to local commentators that film criticism is more than just a matter of collecting their share of booty from annual awards-night telecasts. The movie presents difficult analytical and ethical challenges in a deceptively lyrical, bittersweet, and compassionate manner, a throwback to the original ideals of the French New Wave and its immediate aftermath in Prague Spring cinema.

What enables the film to withstand critical scrutiny is its daring plunge through the thickets of radical gender politics. Where it winds up is as far from a politically correct normative position as it’s been possible to depict onscreen in local cinema. (Warning to those who prefer their film surprises unspoiled: a few revelations are coming up.) The eponymous central character undergoes an odyssey that takes her in directions even she could not anticipate. Such unpredictability, coupled with the filmmakers’ refusal to pass judgment on her decisions, may be the key to the largely belligerent responses of film reactors so far.

How far does Sabel wind up from the norm? To modify the response of a character made famous by the late Marlon Brando, how many norms have you got? I managed to count class, gender, sexuality, legal status, social respectability, ethnic affiliation, even nomenclature, as the character we first encounter as Sabel insists in the end on being called Miriam. Her extreme self-transformations of identity mark her journey as more than queer, a concept that originally drew from feminist and gay ideals but now stands independent of and occasionally opposed to them. So more-than-queer, in fact, that she embodies the most radical position possible in the identity-political game, that of lesbian theory and practice.

At some point in the past I attempted to articulate how, in refusing the reacceptance of norms (also known as mainstreaming) undertaken by the feminist, gay, and now even queer movements, lesbian activism has proved to be the most resistant to civil-rights containment — i.e., the willingness of liberal authorities to provide a place at the table, so to speak, in exchange for good behavior. Although the film-text I was then reading, Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night, literalized its queerness by fragmenting its narrative structure, Sabel performs an even queerer reversal by intertwining two strands that I did not imagine could be integrated in the same body: the sexual and the political.

In short, where I had simply observed that the political lesbian, by embracing her historical "lack" and exploiting what has been regarded as her weakness by precisely insisting on her right to constant mutation, can be equated with a similar long-running revolutionary, the Third-World guerrilla, the film Sabel presents both options within the same body. And although the twists and turns in the main character’s story could amaze — or dismay — those seeking full understanding from the get-go, the signposts are all in place, ready to be acknowledged if one grants the movie a second screening: the character’s volubility, her bouts of inarticulate rage, her insistence on solitude, her reliance on the support of "sinful" men, her capacity for strategizing, and her recognition of the variable uses for one’s body, starting with her decision to undress in order to calm down a hysterical male prisoner.

In fact, the potentially explosive feminist issue of rape is what provides the film with its most carefully calibrated distinction: although as a nun, Sabel allows her own rape to take place (which, by certain legal standards, decriminalizes the act), she refuses to forgive the land-grabbing lawyer who ravages her lesbian lover. Rape, in this sense, is separated from rough sex by the fine line of personal consent, in much the same way that Freud described the inevitable interrelatedness of pleasure and pain. In this way the movie takes a position regarding the standard American feminist debate on pornography, wherein the right-wing pro-Moral Majority camp insisted on its synonymity with rape and the queer wing took the broader view of considering women’s sexuality a potentially enabling and liberating force.

So what have we got so far from the film? A clutch of ironies, actually: a teen slut who falls deeply, near-suicidally, for one of her casual pick-ups; a rebellious daughter who protects her neurotic mom from an abusive husband by setting up his downfall; a nun who turns out to be complicit in her own sexual violation; an absentee wife who admits genuine love for the father of her child; a life-long urbanite who finds solidarity with oppressed tribespeople; an exonerated prisoner who had actually committed the crime she was imprisoned for; a sexual sophisticate who rejects the fashionable trend of lesbian chic in favor of a butch-femme arrangement. Such a head-spinning combination of contradictions makes sense only if we accept that a character could be radical on her own terms, and Sabel’s Sabel proffers terms that are as unorthodox as they come.

In contrast with other feminist Filipino films, notably the same scriptwriter Ricardo Lee’s early ’80s output for Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Sabel unequivocally demands to be taken as an integral part of the canon. It improves on Brutal by first seemingly reversing the gender of its investigator, from female to male, then ensuring that this person is sufficiently de-masculinized — as an ex-prisoner castigated by his fiancée’s mother and rendered reverential (feminist, in a sense) by the sacrifice of the nun he thought he had raped and by the love of an ambitious and capable woman — prior to allowing us to share his gaze. More important, it corrects the only sour note in the otherwise pitch-perfect Moral — the depiction of a minor character, one strong woman, among other strong women, whose only "fault" was that she happened to love other women.

Per the Internet Movie Database, this is the director’s and writer’s eighth collaboration. Most of the Joel C. Lamangan films I have seen evinced an admirable willingness to tackle ambitious themes with the heavy-handedness of a self-consciously classically oriented artist. Sabel is that wondrous creature, a work that pulls in issues from all over the map with the skill of an accomplished raconteur, one unafraid to deploy standard-issue devices (jump cuts and quick dissolves, flashback indicators, dramatic echo effects, etc.) for the sake of easing the narrative along. When the genuinely subversive resolution comes along — the conciliation between the less-patriarchalized straight man and his former lover turned lesbian avenger, one accused of murder and the other getting away with it — it registers first as a warm, feel-good moment, sustained by the closure of the other characters’ stories, before the shocking implications take over.

Past Lamangan films, whatever their limits, could not be faulted for his direction of actors, but in Sabel he draws out career peaks from all the major performers. Wendell Ramos appears to have correctly judged how to attack his role by utilizing a childish affect during his emotional highlights, instead of the now-hackneyed (and predictable) sensitive-male approach, while Sunshine Dizon demonstrates authority as a medical professional and confidence as a soft-spoken butch lesbian. Most impressively, Rio Locsin turns in a radiant, witty, and mercurial performance as Sabel’s mother, all raw-edged neurotic tenderness that threatens to exterminate anyone unfortunate enough to share screen space with her: when she turns on the charm for her daughter and prospective son-in-law, then turns on him to express her unmitigated disapproval, one can completely understand how he can be spellbound enough to smile through her insults and later consult with her on how to find her missing daughter.

How does the lead actress fare in relation to such expert deliveries? It would be nearly impossible to find reference points for evaluation, given the singularity of the character in local cinema. One could attempt a commutational exercise by imagining how, say, the young Nora Aunor could have further enriched the role by lending it the discursive wealth of her persona or how the young Rio Locsin could have added a crucial measure of sensuality, but this also indicates how Judy Ann Santos’ achievement as Sabel is worthy of comparison with our very best talent. I was first appreciative of how unconcerned she was about her looks, considering how far from conventionally beautiful her features are. As she continued to immerse in the difficult metamorphoses of her character, I realized how hard-working this young talent was, and how much justifiable pride she manifested in a job well done. And yes, she does manage to hold her own before the force of nature that is Rio Locsin. If ever, and if only, unapologetically transgressive women characters become a staple in local fiction, Santos’ performance will serve as yardstick not because she was first, but because she made it memorable.

One final female auteur has to be cited: she shares story credit for the film, and is its producer as well. Lily Yu Monteverde has never gotten her due as the most productive mogul in our country’s colorful film history, largely because she also has a contradictory reputation as a destructive producer. But now that even the trashy products of Regal are developing cult reputations, people better start rethinking whether, like Sabel’s, "Mother" Lily’s success wasn’t well earned after all. I’d say, on the basis of previous prestige projects (Mike de Leon’s Sister Stella L., Lino Brocka’s Makiusap sa Diyos), the main character’s nunhood phase was her contribution. But the larger contribution was the production itself. When Sabel insists that everything is part of a larger design, one that she later admits she herself could not completely discern, which creator are the filmmakers referring to?

CHARACTER FILM FRENCH NEW WAVE ISHMAEL BERNAL JUDY ANN SANTOS LESBIAN LILY YU MONTEVERDE ONE RIO LOCSIN SABEL
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