Directed by Eduardo Roy, Jr.
Starring Angie Ferro, Yves Flores, Maria Isabel Lopez
Let me say it up front: If there is any reason to be optimistic for Filipino film, it’s because of filmmakers like Eduardo Roy, Jr. I’ve only recently discovered him, but for all their imperfections I found Pamilya Ordinaryo and F#*@bois to be compact, extremely compelling portraits of what it’s like to be poor and desperate in the Philippines. What makes Roy a must-watch filmmaker is how he manages to avoid fetishizing the poverty he portrays; it’s a talent he displays once again in the tender Lola Igna (currently showing in this year’s edition of Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino and winner of its Best Picture prize).
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Lola Igna opens with the titular grandmother (Angie Ferro) as she wakes up and follows her daily routine: squatting over a chamber pot; scaring away the (obviously CGI) birds from her small plot of farm land with ingeniously stringed tin cans; having a nip of tuba with her breakfast as she talks to a picture of her long-departed husband. Igna is a fiercely independent woman, and if she’s so poor there’s nothing left of her farm but the dirt her nipa hut is standing on, it’s just a matter of fact; Roy is too respectful to sentimentalize it, and Ferro—sinking her teeth into the character with the gusto of a character actress who’s been used as window dressing for too long—is too fierce to be patronized.
What makes Igna different is that, at 118 years old, she’s in the running for the title of oldest living person in the world from a Guinness Book of World Records-like organization, and there’s a healthy dollar stipend attached to it. Everyone from her relatives (including granddaughter Nida, played by Maria Isabel Lopez, who runs a concession stand with Igna’s face plastered all over her store for the tourists) to the mayor (Soliman Cruz, playing the politician’s oiliness with just the right amount of understated grease) has a vested interest in making sure Igna lives to an even more overripe old age.
But again, Roy refuses to condemn these people for their capitalist impulses. We understand that the contest Igna has unwittingly found herself in is good for the town, and there is none of the contempt for small-town shenanigans that Himala had. Instead, Roy treats the townspeople and the barging tourists with empathy, and even affection.
But Igna has other ideas. When progeny she never even knew existed suddenly arrives in the form of a strapping great-grandson named Tim (Yves Flores), asking if he can document his celebrity ancestor for his vlog, Igna hits upon the scheme of asking him to help build her coffin. She’s had a premonition that her time is fast approaching, and she is ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. In one sequence, Igna (who is a retired midwife) is having a glass of tuba after attending the wake of yet another person whose birth she attended to, and she vents to Tim that she is tired, that she doesn’t know anyone, doesn’t recognize the town anymore.
For all of Lola Igna’s gentle humor and golden-tinged tenderness, this is the sequence that serves as the hinge for the film’s canny messaging. Before this, Ferro is all curmudgeonly defiance and sly wisdom; after, she is transfigured into a woman who has seen more, endured more than she cares to—in one unflashy swoop, Lola Igna is transformed from a film about a woman who wants to go when everybody is hellbent on making her stay, to a primal howl for those of us who are afraid of a country we no longer recognize.
In the film’s quietly devastating denouement (be forewarned: You’ll have to sift through a false ending or two to get there), Ferro cradles a baby—a new life she helped birth—as she gives the camera a look that is both resigned and frightened. It is a look that strikes at the heart of those of us who are tired and afraid, but have no choice but to soldier on. Lola Igna is a quietly breathtaking achievement.