I think the best approach to enjoying “Ang Larawan” is the one in which the viewer temporarily breaks off with its original version as a play and watches it as a movie as if it was originally conceived and produced as such. Having read the play and having seen the production of the musical version years ago, I was telling my wife, this could be a sleeper, especially so that I have developed this habit of dozing off on a film if its first ten minutes fail to interest me. But she made a bet that I wouldn’t because the language of Larawan, which is Filipino (although I think it is Tagalog at its finest) would keep my interest piqued and help me stay awake. Then, the film started to roll.
I wasn’t just awake, I was fully engaged. From the opening sequence, in which I was debating with myself whether the set was in Intramuros or the old Villavicencio house in Taal, Batangas, to the final scene when the last procession of the La Naval in October 1941 before the war broke in December that year was shown, the movie had me on a roller coaster of emotions. And my verdict: Say goodbye to your play Nick Joaquin. This play of yours is no longer your own. We are part of it now.
The two ladies, Candida and Paula, describing themselves as “lukaret” had me rolling in laughter. I haven’t heard that word in a long time, and Rolando Tinio, the translator, managing to insert that in the sequence after the fallen high society dames realized that they were being stupid for thinking that their electricity was cut off during a blackout war drill is pure genius. Don Perico’s song “Hindi simple ang buhay”, the wailing of a morally-compromised ex-poet and successful politician hits the level of the guts. Ay! — the shock of recognition when I remember that the once and future President, Raul S. Roco, considered a career in poetry before going to law school. The Conga sequence provides much of the comic relief and keeps everything interesting, as if telling the audience, we know this is heavy stuff, let’s dance.
But Larawan takes you to that part where Candida and Paula are confronted with the ten thousand dollar question, to sell or not to sell their old man Lorenzo Marasigan’s obra maestra. I was half-laughing and half-crying at this scene, asking myself what would I do if I were in their shoes? Being the husband of an artist and knowing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as Shakespeare puts it, I know it might happen to me or my children once (God forbid!), and we will have to choose: a prized artwork or the next meal? Having lived a daily and meaningful existence with an artwork that adorns the abode, one’s experience of parting with great art for a paltry sum feels like eternal damnation, an unforgivable act of shame, and a prostitution of one’s life and humanity.
Yet still, Larawan has a final highlight that throws the audience in cathartic ecstasy. As the elder Marasigan siblings threaten to drag Paula and Candida out of the house, the hermit artist comes out of his room, embraces the sisters, and looms large on the screen, his face full with the expression of love, hope, and defiance against the onslaught of the call to go with the modernizing way of the world. Meanwhile, the La Naval procession outside approaches the house and the camera zooms in on the Virgin Mother whose miraculous intercession is credited for the Spanish victory over the invading superior Dutch forces several centuries ago, as if to say that where all hope is gone, the fire and brimstone of war at your door, your siblings and friends have sold you out, and the last drop of energy in your bones about to give, the devotion to the Virgin Mary is the last sanctuary for all of us battered souls.
Writing as Quijano de Manila, Nick Joaquin himself describes in his essay, La Naval de Manila, the experience of seeing this annual procession,
“Many an October evening while watching this procession of La Naval, and having divined, by a general excitement, the approach of the image, he has heard the cries and trumpets of the passing concourse. He has seen her blaze into vision against the skies of his city, born upon cloud of incense and music, her face on fire with jewels and mysterious with the veneration of centuries, with gleaming rainbows forming and falling all about her and silken doves bobbing whitely among her flowers of gold and silver—Oh, beautiful and radiant as an apparition!—the Presence at Lepanto, Lady and Queen and Mother of Manila, the Virgin of the Fifteen Mysteries.”
The play ends with Bitoy Camacho’s elegiac pleas among the ruins of the Marasigan house as he calls on Candida, Paula, and Lorenzo Marasigan who died in their house during the war. The movie cuts off the sequence and with good reason. This is a movie and not a play. The language of the film is light and shadow. Where the play ends with a speech, the film ends with a scene of a life long gone but beautifully preserved in images and song.
Tolstoy would have approved. While the movie doesn’t preach, hope is a theme that permeates its every scene; hope that springs from the love between sisters and the sisters and their aged father. It was love that moved the long retired artist to paint an obra maestra to save his daughters from the poverty and the onslaught of decay in the last days of old Manila; the same love that kept the sisters together and ultimately what moved them not to sell their father’s dying gift. And love it is that kept the characters of this movie and the inhabitants of old Manila to preserve the tradition of the La Naval, a brotherhood amidst destruction and death animated only by faith and hope in the Mother of God.
I emerged from this film with a profound infection of love and hope. Living in the conditions similar to old Manila, a threat of nuclear war from North Korea, despair among the citizens where a phony drug war is used to subterfuge institutional abuse, I imagined myself as the patriarchal Lorenzo Marasigan with that unforgettable expression on his face as if to say the words that are also the rallying cry of this film: contra mundum!