Bela Padilla in Lav Diaz’s Mananita
Unusual team-up nets worthy experiment
ZOETROPE - Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - November 11, 2019 - 12:00am

Wasn’t exactly how we pictured it, but maybe all for the best. The unusual team-up of Lav Diaz, Paul Soriano and Bela Padilla in the brooding, lyrical-to-the-point-of-mysticism, Mananita, which competed in the recent Tokyo International Film Festival, has all the trappings of an epic waiting to happen, until it does actually, like a breeze before our eyes.

Writer Diaz, director Soriano and actor Padilla, who could cross over to the other’s turf in the wink of an eye, mine each other’s strengths while also dwelling on respective indulgences, in a kind of artistic tug of war and complementarity that leaves the viewer a bit flummoxed, wondering if this is slow cinema, how many beers can Padilla consume in two and a half hours?

For apart from being indirect tribute to the legendary guzzler and National Artist Nick Joaquin, the film also deals with a little-known method of the drug war, from which it derives its title. “Mananita” is a Mexican term for early morning birthday greeting, as the celebrant is roused from sleep as in a salubong, but here it is used in a different context: the dawn serenade is meant for suspected drug personalities surrounded by operatives, urging surrender with their hands up out of their lairs, not a shot fired.

Could be the tweaking the newly appointed drug czar was referring to: less blood, more care.

Yet the film is also one of vendetta and redemption, and the waiting for how Edilberta Agawin (Padilla), a discharged army sniper, goes about it is the hardest part, and like most Diaz narratives it has its rewards at end. Not unusual to come across impatient viewers walking up and down aisles with ants in their pants, waiting for developments, as it is sure to test one’s patience if not endurance, more apt for Diaz’s famous epics.

There’s hardly any dialogue; instead there’s a slew of songs heard in background and lyrics printed onscreen, from Asin folk songs to those of lesser-known artists, that effectively serve as pegs for the story; we must only follow the bouncing ball or Agawin’s meandering angst and marred beauty, almost half her face affected by keloid caused by a fire incident during childhood.

She pukes on a stranger who tries to hit on her at a billiard hall, rides a taxi, bus, jeepney, tricycle to get to the place where the original wrong was done, stops by a roadside stall manned by Joel Saracho to have another beer, rents a room in a nondescript house with sunlight slanting through the wooden louvers, comes across Ronnie Lazaro as a priest of a religious cult at a hillside service, the acolytes singing hymns of devotion.

The few lines that Father Lazaro says are not only food for thought but key us in on where the narrative is finally headed. Many have died in the war on drugs, the statistics rendering a numbness of the impersonal, but forgiveness, redemption, being at peace with oneself is a private matter.

This the priest imparts to Agawin before they part ways on the hill late in the afternoon, the setting sun blazing in the background a la Tarkovsky, from which Diaz has taken a page or two and now Soriano, too, and Padilla’s keloid imperfection turning itself inside out into all this useless beauty.

So it becomes inevitable Agawin must settle the score with her ghosts, bring comeuppance to the killers of her parents and scarred more than her face forever, and at crack of dawn in the breathless bramble we can see through her rifle’s viewfinder this vendetta’s inevitable resolution.

Not every day we come across a film like this, indeed as rare as they come. The quiet can be overwhelming, withholding more than what it says, or what it doesn’t say. The use of song lyrics in lieu of dialogue is very post-MTV, rather aspires to poetry, which is no stranger to Padilla, who herself has written verses not just for Stella.

And while Mananita could be Soriano’s most inaccessible film, it could be among the more manageable of Diaz’s, whose gift is situating the Russian novel in Philippine milieu. Here is a collaboration that may qualify as one for the ages. Possible that jury head Zhang Ziyi found it plodding and inscrutable, no crouching tiger hidden dragon, but certainly in more ways than can be deciphered, among the memorable sleepers of the year.

BELLA PADILLA
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