MMFF review: 'Ang Larawan' is indelibly inspiring

Fred Hawson

Posted at Dec 25 2017 10:05 AM

When one is asked about National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, invariably the first play of his that comes to mind is "A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino." This was a play in English, written by Joaquin in 1950, and first staged in 1955.

Since then, it had been staged several more times, both in the original English, as well as Filipino translations (by Krip Yuson and Franklin Osorio in 1969, and Bienvenido Lumbera in 1989). The roles of Candida and Paula belonged to Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana and Naty Crame-Rogers, both on stage and the 1965 film version (directed by Lamberto Avellana).

Knowing the musical nature of Filipinos, it seemed inevitable that a musical Filipino version of this classic play would be staged one day. It came to pass in 1997, with translation and lyrics by Rolando Tinio, and music by Ryan Cayabyab. Celeste Legaspi was Candida and Zsa Zsa Padilla was Paula back then. This year, this musical version of "Larawan" also gets a film version directed by Loy Arcenas.

One of the most anticipated films this year, "Ang Larawan" had its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival last October 2017. It will have its regular commercial run this Christmas as an entry in the Metro Manila Filmfest.

I had already seen a staging of "Portrait" in English by Repertory Philippines in 2009, so I was already familiar with the story. It was Manila pre-World War II. The unmarried Marasigan sisters Candida and Paula lived in poverty in their ancestral home with their reclusive artist father Lorenzo. Their richer elder siblings insist they sell the house and go live and work for them instead. Their father's one masterpiece painting (about an artist and his conscience) could fetch them a hefty sum of money for freedom, but the two sisters struggle to resist the temptations swirling around them to give up their father's legacy.

Being a musical, it was exciting to see Jo Ampil and Rachel Alejandro attack the roles of Candida and Paula. These two are proven talents on the stage, both as singers and actresses, and their screen performances were no less magnetic and soaring. Cayabyab's high diva notes were no problem for them to deliver, while keeping fully in character. Ampil was stern and pragmatic as Candida. Alejandro was the younger, more vulnerable Paula.

Alejandro had already played Paula 20 years ago in a second run of the stage musical. This year, she plays Paula at the right age and maturity. In fact, a number of members of the original stage musical cast also play roles in this film. Celeste Legaspi played the vivacious senator's wife Dona Loleng, while Zsa Zsa Padilla played Conga Queen Elsa Montes. Even Ricky Davao (who played Tony before) got a cameo as a drunkard on the street.

Paulo Avelino played the charming vaudeville pianist Tony Javier who boarded in a room in the Marasigan house. His macho swaggering presence in their house stirred up feelings long-repressed in the spinster sisters, something their gossip-mongering neighbors eagerly pounced on. The camera loved the photogenic Avelino from all angles. He looked very good, even in scenes where he was disheveled or injured. He was irresistible temptation personified in that steamy seduction scene with Paula.

Sandino Martin was Bitoy Camacho, a young journalist and family friend of the Marasigans, who was telling the story. Martin was also in the other stage musical film this year, "Changing Partners." The selfish haughty Manolo and Pepang were played by the ever-reliable Nonie Buencamino (he surprisingly hit such a high note at one point) and local stage royalty Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (in an unprecedented Filipino speaking role).

Robert Arevalo played Don Perico, a poet who turned his back on his art for politics and a more stable living as a Senator. It was he who delivered Joaquin's main statements about artistry. Cris Villonco and Aicelle Santos played Tony's trampy co-workers Susan and Violet at the nightclub, singing their songs with shrill catty glee. Dulce, Bernardo Bernardo, Nanette Inventor, Noel Trinidad and Jaime Fabregas played the house guests who visited the Marasigan house to watch the grand procession of the Virgin of La Naval. Watch out for a surprise humorous cameo by Ogie Alcasid.

The technical aspects of this film -- lush cinematography (with those tight closeups) by Boy Yniguez, meticulous period production design by Gino Gonzales, and of course, the rousing musical score by Ryan Cayabyab -- definitely stand out and deserve award recognition.

The story tells a lesson about cherishing the idylls and ideals of our past, even if it means fighting against the whole world. We should protect our culture and traditions as they are threatened by time and "progress." These serve to armor our identity as a person, and as a people.

The love and fervor of cast and crew for this project radiate with every beautiful scene. 9/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."