Despite her diminutive and fragile build, her presence always commanded attention. People rose to their feet as soon as she stepped into a room. She had a look all her own: hair pulled back and gathered into a bun; a pair of giant quirky glasses drowning out her small, bird-like countenance; a wisp of a dress, or something structured and vintage, made of brocade or taffeta or something similarly shiny and rich. And then there’s her favored beaded slippers from Liliw, Laguna—if she didn’t forget to change into more formal footwear before she got out of her car.
But while Virginia “Virgie” Moreno was no doubt a style maven—one can’t help it, surely, when one’s brother is Pitoy Moreno, Asia’s Fashion Czar—people didn’t stand in attention because of this. She was a poet, playwright, and champion of Philippine cinema.
“She wrote few poems (13 plus a late one) but each one was precious,” the writer Krip Yuson tells ANCX. “Her one-act play ‘The Straw Patriot’ and full-length play ‘The Onyx Wolf’ were both remarkable for their structure, dramatic strength, metaphorical value and poetic content in the dialogue.”
Moreno’s most significant contribution to Philippine cinema, however, according to film historian and festival programmer Teddy Co, is founding the UP Film Center in 1976. Moreno served as the institution's director up to her retirement from the university.
“Before there were art film houses or film courses, she trailblazed the putting up of such a sanctuary for the cinematic arts,” says Co who entered UP Diliman in 1975 and spent the better part of his college years—and even after—at the campus cinematheque, watching movies and hanging out with fellow film buffs and scholars. “It was a huge part of my education in world cinema.”
The daughter of Jose Moreno, a ship captain, and Felicidad Reyes, the young Virgie grew up in Gagalangin, Tondo, where many illustrious names in Philippine arts and media came from—from National Artist Amado Hernandez and bodabil star Atang Dela Rama to restauranteur Larry Cruz and novelist Andres Cristobal Cruz.
Virgie studied at the Torres High School in Tondo, then finished her bachelor of Philosophy and Master of Arts degree in English at the University of the Philippines. Even at an early age, she was not afraid to express what she had in mind. She once said it was her overt dislike of being in a school run by Belgian nuns that discouraged her folks from sending her and brother Pitoy to a private school. “The nuns were all in black from head to toe and the school seemed dark. I must have kicked one of the nuns as I resisted,” she recalled to the Inquirer.
Moreno was a famous raconteur and used to hold court at the Indios Bravos, the Malate cafe in the 70s frequented by Manila’s coterie of bohemians, artists and poets, from Nick Joaquin to Bencab, Pepito Bosch to Kerima Polotan. She also liked to entertain in the Malvar Street home she shared with Pitoy. Her parties often involved personalized invitations, opera singing and poetry reading.
According to friends and fans, Moreno never tired of telling anecdotes from her own life, many of them from when she was much younger. “One remarkable story was how she saved her family from death,” wrote Atet Samson in Tribune just last May, relating a Moreno story from the Second World War. “She courageously welcomed the Japanese officer alone while the whole family was hiding. In her Sunday dress with shoes and socks, her long hair tied, she offered and served the Japanese officer canned peaches with shaved ice, and while the officer was eating, she played the piano, her hands shaking. That was Virgie playing hostess reluctantly to an enemy.”
Call her Barang
The 70s were heady years for Moreno. Having just come from finishing her studies at the British Film Institute in London in 1969, courtesy of a grant from the British Council, she wrote and published her landmark play “The Onyx Wolf” in 1971, receiving a literary prize for it the following year from the Southeast Asian Theater Organization. She was a Humanities professor and became chair of the UP President’s Committee on Culture and the Arts. She was writer in residence at the Iowa International Writers Program in 1973 to 1974.
It’s a testament to the weight of her words that peers have dubbed her the high priestess of Philippine poetry—although some just lovingly refer to her as Aling Barang—despite having only produced a single collection of poems. Called “Batik Maker and Other Poems,” she famously launched it in 1975 at the CCP, creating 13 copies especially for the occasion. They were covered in batik fabric of her own choosing—“in the famous broken sword motif of Javanese royalty”—especially flown in from Jakarta.
The book’s pages were made of Kyoto rice paper, a contribution from her brother Pitoy from one of his trips to Osaka. The writer and book maker Larry Francia lovingly crafted and stitched each copy of that limited edition “release,” five of which were suspected to have been quickly, sneakily snatched away by admirers on the launch evening itself. The event was kind of a big deal. Lucrecia Kasilag’s gamelan orchestra performed during the occasion, as did top caliber actors Vic Silayan and Lolita Rodriguez who read the poems in three languages: English (the original text), French, and Filipino. (Read "Batik Maker" here.)
Teddy Co laments how the UP Film Institute failed to accord Moreno a tribute of any kind during the year-long celebration for the Philippine cinema centenary in 2019. Moreno died Saturday, August 14. She was 98.
Moreno was a guiding light to young Filipino artists and film enthusiasts, many of whom eventually earned recognition for their works in different international festivals. “Many of the early cineastes like Nick Deocampo and Tikoy Aguiluz owe her a debt of gratitude for opening their eyes and doors to the art of cinema. They were some of her early scholars who studied at film institutions abroad,” adds Co. “Middle-aged cineastes and filmmakers like Raymond Red owe her for their first breaks in film. The UP Film Center really shaped an entire generation of lovers and connoisseurs of Philippine and world cinema.”
Moreno, says Co, was surely influential in the creation of the UP Film Center, thanks to her sheer force of will and her connections, among them with the UNESCO and former First Lady Imelda Marcos. “Sadly for her, it was integrated into the UP College of Mass Communications in 2003, and it was not her baby anymore,” offers Co. “But now known as UP Film Institute, it has become a pioneering film institution within the last fifty years. And she started it all.”
[Special thanks to Isidra Reyes, Rupert Jacinto and Jojo Silvestre.]