Celeste Legaspi with the late National Artist Nick Joaquin, who wrote “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.”

A moving portrait of the artist as Filipino
Ida Anita Q. Del Mundo (The Philippine Star) - December 23, 2017 - 4:00pm

MANILA, Philippines — For director Loy Arcenas, Ang Larawan – which will be shown starting tomorrow at the Metro Manila Film Festival – has been a four-year journey. But, he is quick to point out, “I only came in half-way through.” A trio of women – executive producers Celeste Legaspi, Girlie Rodis and Rachel Alejandro – have been seeing the project through for some 20 years already.

“We’ve been producing Filipino musicals since 1987,” says Legaspi. Starting with the highly successful Katy!, the group has also produced Alikabok, Kenkoy Loves Rosing, and Sino Ka Ba Jose Rizal.

Larawan, first mounted in 1997 as a stage musical by Rolando Tinio, is based on the play A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino by the late National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, with music by Ryan Cayabyab. Rodis was executive producer, assisted by Alejandro, while Legaspi played one of the female leads, Candida.

“We started talking about the film six years ago,” says Rodis, “but this project started in 1997, when the musical came to be. We approached Nick Joaquin and he agreed for us to make it into a musical. So the journey began then, 20 years ago.”

Rodis adds, the Larawan film project would always come up whenever she and Alejandro would talk throughout the years. “Of the seven musicals that we produced, Katy! was the most popular, but our favorite was always Larawan,” she shares. However, the film never seemed to pan out. They had already approached some directors, but their visions did not match.

Finally, production designer Gino Gonzales suggested Arcenas. “He said Loy has the sensibilities for this project,” says Rodis. “By that time, Celeste already had a grandchild.”

With the work of two National Artists and the music of Ryan Cayabyab, Arcenas says, “How can you say no to this? All I knew was I loved the piece and I loved the challenge of doing the piece. I’ve never done a musical. I knew that it had a long life ahead of it. And if it had a long life, it would be stupid for me not to be a part of that.”

Collaboration is an important part of filmmaking for Arcenas, who says that he would often take into consideration the ideas of Legaspi, Rodis and Alejandro. After all, he says, “They’ve lived it much longer than I have!”

Legaspi is most proud of Larawan’s music. “The music was always very strong, even in 1997 when we only had a six-piece band.” For the film, the six-piece band has expanded into a full orchestra, with the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra recording the music.



“The music of the orchestra is a character in itself,” says Alejandro, who first fell in love with Larawan’s music when she was in her 20s, listening to her father rehearse the play when it was first staged in 1997. “I found myself going to each and every rehearsal… I loved the songs so much.”

While production really started in earnest with Arcenas at the helm, it would take some four years before they finally finished the meticulously made film. The first year was spent in rehearsal. “We didn’t have all the actors when we started… male leads didn’t happen until nine months later,” says Rodis.

“We would do run-throughs as if it were a play, from start to finish,” says Alejandro. “It was finally set when we recorded one year later.” 

They were actually planning to sing the music live on set, Rodis shares. But it was Claude-Michel Schöenberg himself who told Rodis, “Whatever you do, don’t record live” – while showing her rough cuts of the film adaptation of Les Miserables.

The schedule was unusual, especially for an independent film, but Arcenas notes that it really allowed the cast to grow and develop their characters. “We realized that you cannot just shoot this haphazardly,” says Arcenas, who is particularly proud of the performances of the actors captured in the film. “You can say a lot of things about the production itself, but I don’t think you can put down the performances because the performances are really topnotch. 50 years from now, when they look at this, my hope is that they say, in 2015, this was the caliber of performance that we got,” says the proud director.

The effort and care put into making Larawan has not gone unnoticed. The film received a warm welcome at the Tokyo Film Festival and in the Cinematografo festival in San Francisco. In fact, Larawan received a rave review from Variety’s Richard Kuipers who wrote, “Clearly made with the utmost love and care, ‘The Portrait’ is beautifully decorated and top-notch in every technical detail.”

Legaspi adds, after emailing Kuipers to thank him for the review, the film critic replied, “Aside from admiring the film as a film critic, he was moved by it as a human being because of the emphasis on the importance of art.”

Despite the positive reaction from the international community, Rodis says, “I’m still holding my breath because I still want to see how the Filipino audience will accept it. My heart is in my throat.”

Opening tomorrow, Christmas Day, the film is part of the often controversial Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), going up against several blockbuster commercial flicks. Admittedly, the team was disappointed to be rejected in the first round of MMFF’s selections, which was based on the film’s script – “These are Rolando Tinio’s words,” Rodis says on the script.

Undeterred, they finished production in time to submit the film for a second screening, this time, based on the finished products. The whole team knew that this was a risk, but Legaspi says, “It is our responsibility to get the biggest audience we can find.”

Looking back on the past four years – and the past 20 years – Legaspi says, “If there’s one adjective to describe all our endeavors, it’s brave. We’ve always gone in there without any reassurance of anything. Even when we first started putting up original Filipino musicals like Katy!, who knew that it would become a hit? Who knew that there would be lines around Rizal Theater to see our show? We didn’t know that. All we knew was we wanted to do original musicals. From the very beginning it’s been about being brave.”

Arcenas agrees, “This is a document of the bravery, the daring that we decided to put our hearts into.”

“We didn’t just make a movie for this year. This movie will live on for many, many years,” Rodis adds. “A little band of believers put our energies together and got Larawan on the screen. It was a difficult journey.”

Arcenas corrects her: “It was an exciting journey… It’s an adventure and it’s been a wonderful ride.”

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