A scene from "Debosyon." Photo from Cinemalaya's website
Alvin Yapan’s films have always been influenced by his being both a literature professor and a writer of short stories. They are never empty vessels of creatively plotted stories that are heavily embellished by cinematic techniques and visuals. His films’ charm relies heavily on the fact that the stories are never just stories. They are intelligent observations on gender politics, as in Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (Dance of Two Left Feet, 2011), where a gay love story houses feminist intentions, or in Gayuma (Pilgrim Lovers, 2010), a romance whose two halves articulate love and longing from the perspectives of both genders, and on economic history and Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe (The Rapture of Fe, 2009), a supernatural tale where the various inadequacies of the Philippines’ economic growth are represented by various inadequate male characters.
"Debosyon" (Devotion) is Yapan’s visually sumptuous observation on cultural and religious phenomena. In the film, he frames his explorations within the strangest of romance, one between a young man and a creature of mythology. Mando (Paulo Avelino) is a fervent devotee of the Lady of Penafrancia, a wooden Marian statue that is famed for the miracles it grants to its devotees. While searching the forest for orchids, he chances upon a solitary flower on top of a tree. He falls while attempting to get the flower. He wakes up to Salome (Mara Lopez), a mysterious woman who lives alone inside a hut in the middle of the forest, who nurses him back to health. They fall in love, only to be hindered by Salome’s revelation, one that shakes Mando’s religious devotion to its core.
Yapan tells the story with admirable patience, allowing his story to really take root in the landscape that features very heavily in his elegant visuals. The forest where Mando meets Salome is a character itself. Its trees bleed when axed. Deep in its heart is a pond pristine enough to wash the gravest of doubts. From its hills, one can see the perfect but solitary Mayon volcano, an image of absolute beauty and loneliness amidst plains and farmlands. Yapan understands the topography of Bicol. His narrative makes use of it in a way that it is intertwined with the romance and the mysticism. The beauty of the film is not intended to simply be pleasurable to tired eyes. It is meant to enamour, to give a semblance of the irresistible allure of the land. It is meant to make one fall desperately in love.
From the geography comes the native songs, the lyrics of which speak of loving desperation or pained longing. Mando sings one of the love songs Salome learns from a previous love as an act of courtship. Struggling to learn the song with only a guitar at hand and Salome’s memory for guidance, the song may very well be an expression of devotion, a pleasant tribute from a mortal to a woman whose beauty is venerated. At another point, Mando is warned by roving rebels of the forest witch that eats the souls of the men who are beholden by her charms. He desperately races to find Salome, presumably to see if the rebels’ warnings are true. In the background, another song is heard, lamenting of the hurts one bears for love. Yapan intelligently places the various songs in the vital points of courtship, directing the viewer to understand and digest the familiar lyrics along and melody within very specific contexts ranging from absolute adoration to enduring doubt.
More than just a love story, "Debosyon" seems to be an ode to Yapan’s native Bicol. It dissects a psyche that has been cultivated by a distinct landscape and the history that has taken place in it. Its mythologies, its songs, its undying devotion to the image of the Penafrancia idol, are to Yapan’s mind, products of a love affair between its people and the mystical land they live in. Religion hardly matters in the film. It is simply not its point, but just a starting to point to uncover a cultural feature. Yapan seems to be more interested in the psyche that resulted in the religiosity that is as intense and involving as romantic passion. "Debosyon" is profound allegory, a story that puts in a clear perspective a culture of devotion that is more rooted in a people’s pre-colonial conscience than the actual charms of Catholicism.
Yapan ends "Debosyon" with a summation of both the love story and the allegory. The lovers make passionate love, Mando heavily caressing the serpentine figure of his unlikely partner. People express their love to the Marian image, their little candlelit boats floating along the banks of a serpentine river. Despite the differences, the two images sit comfortably alongside each other. The country’s unique Catholic practices are but reiterations of a cultural devotion that has been shaped by the forests, the mountains, the rivers. “I saw your eyes in the eyes of the Virgin of Penafrancia,” whispers Mando when asked by Salome about his desire that seems defiant of reason and logic. In a few words, Yapan commits the impossible and marries religious fervor with the most primal of human urges.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Lessons from the School of Inattention."