MANILA, Philippines - I remember those days when one went to the Metro Manila Film Festival to see the likes of Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Marilou Diaz Abaya, Celso Ad. Castillo, and Mike de Leon compete for the December prizes with their amazing films.
It’s in this spirit that I went to watch the film fest on its first day, and I chose Rosario, the first film offering of CineMabuhay and Studio 5. I was not disappointed.
Duty and love are the twin poles that Rosario (Jennylyn Mercado) had to contend with in 1920s Philippines. Back from studies in New York and stuck in a tobacco hacienda in Isabela, she meets her match in the bright but poor Vicente (Yul Servo), the administrator of their vast estate.
Duty and love are also the twin poles confronting Vicente, who was sent to school by Rosario’s parents. Bright thought he may be, he will always be at the bidding of Rosario’s feudal father (Philip Salvador). The mansion and the opulent dinner, the hectare upon hectare of land are shown. Subtly, these vast wealth is possible because it sits on the backs of the poor, the ragged farm workers — and their children and children’s children — who will be servants of the landowners.
While having dinner with American administrators, the feisty Vicente recites a Spanish poem about a parakeet, this beautiful bird, in its golden cage. The Americans walk out of the dinner table, and Rosario’s estimation of Vicente grows. He lends her a book of poems in Spanish, and in turn she lends him a book of poems in English. Then she asks him, “What is your favorite poem?”
He answers, The Road Not Taken. This now-classic poem by Robert Frost, this poem about taking “the road less travelled by” seals their fates.
For schooled in New York (it must be a music school, but we are not told) and wizened to the ways of the modern world, would Rosario choose a rich but weak man? Would she really settle down to the boring and cloistered life in the vast estate?
But their love is doomed, Vicente is tortured, Rosario is sent to the nunnery. She flees, elopes with Vicente and they leave behind the hacienda, to live in the new world.
It’s a world of work, where people sit behind desks from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in an insurance company called Shimon & Schuster Insurance Company (complete with the S & S publishing logo in NY) to receive their just wages and not some entitlement from the harvest of the land. It’s a world of work where women are equal to men, in both their lives, their loves, their lusts.
However, the hardworking Vicente falls ill to the sickness of the times — tuberculosis — and Rosario is seduced by her cousin’s boyfriend (Dennis Trillo). What I love about this film, among others, is the camera. Carlo Mendoza's cinematography shows the candle-like fingers of Rosario caressing the back of her ailing husband while giving him a bath. The camera later shows the car of Dennis stuck in the rain, steaming and steaming. He is wet from the rain, his shirt is unbuttoned, and inside the closed car sits Rosario, torn again between duty and lust.
Sent into destierro (exile) in Hong Kong by the court after they were convicted of adultery, Rosario and Vicente suffer. Because this film is framed by the narration of Rosario’s son, Jesus (Dolphy), the life in Hong Kong is just told. They must have suffered, but how? A shot or two showing us what they did for a living would have convinced us that an insurance salesman and a disinherited woman did indeed suffer in HK.
From hacienda to entresuelo is the distance that Rosario’s life travels. Upon returning to the Philippines, they wander from town to town, in a subtle allusion to the pariahs of society who have to shuttle from place to place, unwanted. They settle in lowlife Manila, with the grasping landlord played with wicked glee by Ricky Davao and his sensitive and kind nephew, Carding (Sid Lucero).
Music binds this film together like a thread. Rosario plays on the piano, painfully showing a refined and sensitive woman like a beautiful bird caged by her fate. Rosario’s daughter and namesake (played by Empress Schuck) is renamed Soledad, and in her solitude the daughter plays Lizst’s Lebenstraum in a concert. If life, indeed, is a dream, Rosario must have surmised, watching her daughter play with such intensity and fire, then why am I caught in this nightmare?
Life is the enemy, the film seems to say, and in the end Rosario had to choose between another love and a life alone. What is the punishment for the sins of lust and love?
Aside from the cinematography and the music, the production design by Joey Luna is faithful to the era — from gramophone to mansion to the office in Binondo. Director Alberto P. Martinez stitched the film together in an almost seamless way.
The ensemble acting is very good: Dolphy, Yul Servo, Chanda Romero, and Dennis Trillo stand out. Jennylyn Mercado has a face perfect for the role, and acquits herself well in her role. Her last scene with Carding (Sid Lucero) alone is worth the price of admission. Look at the eyes of love, the bright and expectant eyes of Carding, the slight movement like a tick in his right jaw, before Rosario turns away, and the blade of sadness descends.