'Anak Dalita:' The stories behind the scenes of a Filipino film classic 2
The ballad of Vic and Tita: he plays a soldier who fought in the Korean war, she plays a prostitute with a golden heart. Image courtesy of CinemaOne.

'Anak Dalita:' The stories behind the scenes of a Filipino film classic

On the occasion of the screening of a newly scanned copy of the 1956 classic, we recall the stories behind the scenes of one of National Artist Lamberto Avellana's greatest 
Jerome Gomez | Sep 19 2020

A newly scanned copy of the 1956 film “Anak Dalita” will be screened tomorrow, Sunday, on the cable channel CinemaOne at 9PM. The film was made by the great director Lamberto Avellana and was produced by LVN Pictures. The story of a Filipino soldier who fought in the Korean war (Tony Santos) and the kindhearted prostitute (Rosa Rosal) he passionately falls for, it’s also a portrait of post-war Manila. It allows us a peek into the world of people who lived in poverty amongst the ruins of Intramuros at that time (“The Ruins” is the film’s English title): the gossip mongers, the bystanders, a young mother breastfeeding her child, drunkards, sabungeros—imperfect individuals who may have nothing much but who know exactly what they're worth. 

With the plight of the poor as it’s theme, actors who were not exactly box-office draws as leads, and without a single song and dance sequence, the film almost did not get the green light from LVN grande dame Narcisa de Leon, or Doña Sisang. She always knew what kind of movies made money—-and this wasn’t one of them. Good thing her son Manuel’s belief in the project was so strong that  “Anak Dalita” got made. 

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Blessed are the poor: Tony Santos, Rosa Rosal and Vic Bacani play dispossessed characters in Lamberto Avellana's "Anak Dalita." Photo courtesy of Archivo 1984

It was most likely a good thing, too, that the director Avellana was not the type to build elaborate sets to tell his stories. The guy liked to keep it real. According to his daughter Ivi Avellana Cosio, who remembers being in the Intramuros set twice as a teenager, her father used whatever was existing in the location. For the wooden houses used in “Anak Dalita,” he just asked the residents if the production could use their home—and the dwellers would just move into a neighbor’s house for the length of the shoot. Just as real backdrops appealed to the director, so did real people—he invited select characters from the ruins to play bit roles, maybe even say a line or two, and they would say yes. 

Of course, nobody really says no to Lamberto Avellana. “He could get his actors to do things they normally wouldn’t do,” recalls Avellana Cosio. For example, walk the pretty high ledge of the church ruins with a small child, with the ledge probably not even more than 10 inches wide. “Papatayin yata ako ng tatay mo eh,” Avellana Cosio recalls Santos telling her jokingly. 

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Fighting the call of temptation: With Jose de Cordova who plays the foil to Vic Silayan's priest in "Anak Dalita." Image courtesy of Archivo 1984

There were, of course, times when he just couldn’t get what he wanted—then he knew he just needed to be inventive. Like when he was trying to get the right reaction from Vic Bacani who plays Ipe, the kid brother of Tita (Rosal). Bacani, being a non-actor before “Anak Dalita”, didn’t quite know how to feign being hit by a bullet from his back. After several tries, Avellana snuck behind the boy and just when he was going to get shot, the director threw a pebble in the direction of the child’s back and got just the right response from Bacani.

Actors are usually the least of Avellana’s problems, however—maybe because he liked working with the same stars over and over: Rosal, Santos, Vic Silayan who plays the priest in “Anak Dalita,” Charito Solis, Leopoldo Salcedo and Leroy Salvador. He always drew excellent performances from these actors—that or they knew just what Avellana wanted from them. 

The performances in “Anak Dalita” are so distinct from the acting in most movies of that period. The way the characters talk is closer to how real people talk. The way they react is how people react in real life. Nothing is excessive. That’s why it’s such a treat to watch Rosal take control but also have fun with her role Tita, who straddles between haughty vamp toughened by the world and softhearted woman in love. And what a thrill to watch her exchange lines with the fiercely masculine Santos who knew how to mine the few words he was given as much as the silences. They really light up the screen—and when they throw each other a look, they set it on fire. 

“Anak Dalita” is also a concisely told narrative—without the meandering montages and, yes, musical numbers that characterize the films of that era (just when you think the kid was going to come up with a performance to entertain the community’s drinkers, the film moves on to more exciting things). Which should endear the movie to contemporary audiences with shorter attention spans, although there are a myriad of amusements the film also offers: seeing the Manila Hotel poolside of the 50s, and the Manila International Airport where an entire exciting sequence takes place. There’s Ms Rosal always looking smashing in the most tight-fitting dresses, and that ending—suspenseful, artistic, heartbreaking, bittersweet. 

“Avellana’s best films are some of the finest examples of contemporary Filipino cinema,” says the book, “The Urian Anthology 1980-1989”—and “Anak Dalita” is rightfully considered among his best. It was the first Filipino film to win the Grand Prix for Best Picture in the Southeast Asian Film Festival in 1956, the first movie from the Philippines to get honored with an international award (Luciano Carlos previously won for Best Screenplay, and Gerry de Leon for Best Director). 

“Anak Dalita” did not make money in the theaters but Avellana considered it a personal triumph nonetheless —having been able to work with the people he wanted to work with, and even getting an award for it. The film also won the FAMAS International Prestige Award, as well as the Golden Harvest honor for Best Picture. De León was said to have been quite pleased with the trophies. And as for his mother Dońa Sisang, the matriarch reportedly joked, “Ano ngayon gagawin niyo sa mga kopang ‘yan? Makakain niyo ba ‘yan?”