‘Thy Womb’

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I must admit that my heart sank when my eyes combed the whole Cinema 11 of SM Manila and found only two souls — my friend Jerry Donato and me — watching the last screening of Thy Womb two Wednesdays ago. My heart sank all the more realizing what the people who did not troop to the cineplexes to watch this film were missing — a brilliant film that talks about who we are as a people from the experiences of a Muslim woman and the community she lives in.

Thy Womb, an unnervingly quiet film by Cannes award-winning director Brillante Ma. Mendoza, has been hailed internationally before it opened for the Metro Manila Film Festival on Dec. 25. The film does not necessitate melodramatic excesses to convey its message. Set in a quiet fishing Badjao village in Tawi-Tawi, Thy Womb posits the sincere desire of Shaleha (Nora Aunor) — a midwife who has an unusual penchant for collecting umbilical cords, which she air-dries while wrapped in a small piece of cloth — to find a second wife for her husband Bangas-An (Bembol Roco) who longs for an offspring of his own that she cannot give. She has lost all hope, being past her prime, to give her husband a child but she has not lost hope to find him another wife (Muslim law allows it, of course) who can give him the desire of his heart. With the help of a matchmaker, they find Mersila (Lovi Poe) and, with a douse of courage and the right amount of dowry, which the couple raises by receiving dole-outs from friends and even by selling the engine of their banca, a festive wedding ensues for Bangas-An and his new wife. The child Bangas-An has been waiting for finally arrives with Shaleha assisting Mersila when she gives birth.

The film is silent in its discussion of its narrative yet it explodes inside you — in your heart and mind. A woman’s worth is put to the test and the scale is kept not in the boundaries set by the director but in the intellectual and emotional capacity of the viewer to sympathize with the protagonist. Yes, your cognitive faculties will be exercised while watching Thy Womb but the barometer of your emotions will also be put to use. It’s a thinking film and Mendoza will just burst your bubble if you’re after a quick entertainment fix.  He’s not known for that. Not yet. Unless commercialism infests his wits.

You come to the theater to watch Thy Womb because you’re ready for another serving of social realism — understanding fully that reality, as always, is more potent than fantasy.

You come to the theater to watch Thy Womb because you do not want to escape, instead you want to understand yourself deeper by understanding the characters and the nuances that each one of them possesses.

You come to the theater to watch Thy Womb because you want a long and lasting impression of your culture, of your strengths and weaknesses.

You come to the theater to watch Thy Womb because you want to know, or perhaps experience, what a real and beautiful film is all about. Period. 

But let me also say that Thy Womb is not perfect as a film. It is flawed if by being flawed means Mendoza telling the story rather slowly and laboriously. But once you are already in the loop, right in the womb of the film, you will find yourself intrinsically involved instead of bored. At times, the camerawork is jarring but you also feel that it is deliberately done to really jar your senses — to emphasize a particular point, to exact a reaction from you, to involve you in the process. Sometimes some shots are dark but you begin to think it is a technique to hide Shaleha’s pain or perhaps, to camouflage her joy. Even in her moments of triumphs or travails, Shaleha always equips her persona with dignified stance.

Henry Burgos’ screenplay of Thy Womb is bare and simple. Speaking lines of the characters are scant but pithy. And one will be inclined to believe that part of the success of making this film is achieved because of the simplicity of the script and the complexity of the story.

Mendoza’s sincere and steady focus to helm this film can also be seen in the presentation of sub-stories. Conflicts are shown as Mendoza treats the viewer to a glimpse of a quiet life in the village where a rather ordinary day in the market is suddenly jolted by soldiers patrolling the area or a picturesque and peaceful day at sea being disrupted by raucous bandits. But the greater conflict of the film really lies in the heart of Shaleha.

Nora Aunor becomes Shaleha in Thy Womb. In the film, she is not the Philippine cinema’s Superstar but the Muslim wife who almost obsessively looks for the solution to realize the happiness of her husband, also played quietly disturbing by Bembol Roco. Both Nora and Bembol blend naturally well in a Badjao village as if they were born and raised in the place, as if it was the Tawi-Tawi air that they had been breathing all their life.

It will perhaps be obscene to give Nora Aunor more speaking lines in Thy Womb because what the words cannot say, her eyes, the signature La Aunor armament in the acting battleground,  telegraph to the viewers’ senses her gamut of emotions a million times. So, you feel her pain, her joy, her longing, her dignified submission to the test of circumstances not because she utters them but because her eyes allow you to see and feel those emotions in the frame. Nora proves that in the acting department, she is a legend. Hers is an understated acting that speaks volumes even in her silence, even in her sepulchral silence.

Her performance in Thy Womb earns Nora two Thursdays ago a best acting plum at the 38th Metro Manila Film Festival. Mendoza is also hailed as the festival’s best director.

In her speech, Nora said: “Kahit konti na lang ang manonood sa akin, kahit ako na magpoproduce, patuloy pa rin po akong gagawa ng makabuluhang pelikula.”

Because of poor ticket sales, cinemas reportedly plan to pull out Thy Womb in the cineplexes. To this, Mendoza, who was recently recognized by the 6th Asia Pacific Screen Awards with the Achievement in Directing for the Nora Aunor-starrer, appealed to the viewers to support and watch, even endorse, his film. His appeal somehow did not end on deaf ears as Thy Womb, the last time I checked, is still showing in very, very few theaters. You begin to ask what happened to the throngs of shrieking fans of the Superstar some distant decades ago? Perhaps time caught up with many of them and, even if they love Nora Aunor, going to the theater to watch her film is probably not included in their priorities anymore. Sad truth but the Superstar is not giving up — she said she would not get tired making sensible films. If that is the case, it is about time to create new followers.

Before it’s too late, the Filipino audience must realize now that Thy Womb is one of the best Filipino films a Filipino could watch on the big screen in his lifetime.

(E-mail me at [email protected] or follow me on Twitter @bum_tenorio.)


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