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A WELCOME CHANGE
Avellana’s Portrait stands out from the current crop of films mired
in triviality, copying, and sensationalism.
By Ophelia San Juan
IN AN age of fast guns, tasteless sex, and sick humor, the advent of Lamberto V. Avellana’s film version of the lyrical, evocative, compassionate, and beautiful play by Nick Joaquin, A Portrait Of The Artist As Filipino, is a welcome change. It is a noteworthy artistic product of men recognized as the best in their respective fields.
Portrait is set in Intramuros – the old Manila, the original Manila, according to the author, where the erstwhile splendid townhouses of the principal families “had come down in the world” and were “no longer splendid, no longer the seats of the mighty, abandoned and forgotten, they stood decaying all along the street; dreaming of past glories, growing ever more dark and dingy and dilapidated with the years; turning into slum-tenements at last” – in the destruction and the horror it would bring, “the year of Hitler for Europe – but for us over here, it was the year of the Conga and the Boogie-Woogie, the year of practice black-outs, the year of the Bare Midriff.”
More particularly, however, Portrait is set in the stately old house of the painter Don Lorenzo Marasigan, the only house on Intramuros’s Calle Real that never became a slum-tenement, that remained as well-kept as the dignity, the individuality, and the nobility of the old artist and his two spinster daughters, Candida and Paula. The world of the three hold-outs of Intramuros’s vanishing grandeur and regality is a world “where all’s accustomed, ceremonious,” and while “outside, the world was hurrying gaily towards destruction,” in the Marasigan house “life went on as usual; unaltered, unchanged; everything in its proper place; everything just the same today as yesterday, or last year, or a hundred years ago.”
The play, as well as the film, dwells on the grace and the beauty of a past age, and on the drama of lives passionately caught in the harsh transition to a new one.
A Portrait Of The Artist As Filipino, on film, has beauty, high drama, significance, originality, polish and that requisite of all art creativity, which makes of it the product of only the most intelligent and artistic men involved in the filmmaking in the Philippines today.
It takes three, to make a film: a writer, a producer, and a director. All three have to share something in common, a passion for art not unlike the aching of a woman for her lover, or of a seedling for the sun, only in this instance their individual passions or daemons must be complimentary, and in harmony and consonance, to be able to create, not individual pieces but a totality of ideas, feelings, attitudes and actions.
Such three lovers came together for Portrait, the initial film of Diadem Productions.
Nick Joaquin, the author, is the most celebrated figure in the Philippine literary world today. This year’s winner of the Palanca Memorial Award for short story, who was also the recipient of a number of major literary awards and fellowships in the past, has been called “the most distinguished living Filipino writer,” “the first literary artist of the country,” and “the only Filipino writer with a real imagination – that imagination of power and depth and great metaphysical seeing – and which knows how to express itself in great language” – he has been called those by critics and other writers, among them the poet Jose Garcia Villa and the UP professor and creative writer Francisco Arcellana.
Teodoro M. Locsin, writing the introduction to Joaquin’s Prose and Poems, says: “No Filipino now writing matches his stories in power and beauty; their wedding of primitive emotions with sophisticated treatment is beyond the power of local practitioners of the art. Here are the dark, instinctive drives of men and women caught in a cage of glittering words. Here is the shapeless sub-conscious given significance and form.”
The only play he has written so far, A Portrait Of The Artist As Filipino, is nonetheless the best Filipino play in English. It has body, depth, meaning, scope, universality, timelessness, and, most important of all, that grandeur and loveliness of expression that comes only from Nick Joaquin – “agrifted stylist,” in the words of Manuel A. Viray.
The English language is used as the medium of expression in the Portrait film, just as Joaquin himself used a “borrowed” language, but one he uses with felicity, beauty, and grace, to produce some of the best Filipino literary works. In fact, not English alone is used in the film, but Spanish phrases as well may be heard being uttered by some of the main characters, specially the older ones.
Explaining the incorporation of foreign languages other than English in Portrait, the film-makers said that our ancestors were not only bi-lingual like us, but in most instances were even quadri-lingual. And presenting them in the film in the way they actually talked is one more step toward achieving realism, which is what the producers of Portrait aim at.
The producers of Portrait are the same producer-director team of Manuel de Leon and Lamberto V. Avellana that made the two best Filipino movies in the Asian Film Festival competitions: Anak-Dalita and Badjao. The former won the grand prize of the Festival in 1956; the latter the ad hoc prizes for best direction, best screen play, best editing, and best actor in 1957. These same films have also been entered in non-competitive film festivals in Europe and the Americas, been exhibited in US art theaters. They have given the Philippines its initial claim to international cinema.
De Leon, who has been a loss to the Philippine movies industry since the shutdown of LVN, is making his first tentative comeback to film financing. He is doing it with an eye to the big international market, reasoning that if a film can be good enough for worldwide viewing, it logically is good for the Philippine segment as well. This should come about automatically, but De Leon is going even further and is insuring his sizable Philippine patronage by accepting Avellana’s proposal to make a film that has significance for Philippine life in addition to its universal values.
Such a film obviously is A Portrait Of The Artist As Filipino, which is rich in the elements of Philippine cultural heritage and a-glitter with the human verities.
Manny de Leon
A well-educated, well-brought up young man, Manny de Leon can be expected to favor the production of films that would not be an insult to the intelligence of its audience and a slap in the face of common decency.
As an astute businessman, he must also know that the doubtful appeal of mediocre films will not be for the greater part of the population, nor for long.
He also knows that his producer-friends in the Federation of Motion Picture Producers in Asia, the organization that sponsors the annual Asian Film Festival, regard him as a serious and responsible producer. And it would be unworthy of him to make, as his comeback picture, anything less than the excellence promised by the basic material of Joaquin’s play.
He knows, too from the experience of Anak-Dalita and Badjao, if not also from his intimate discussions of the problems of Filipino films with Avellana that only the director of the only Grand Prix-winning film of the Philippines would be suitable for the direction of Portrait.
Avellana Is Best Qualified
In the first place, the Joaquin play is set in the old Intramuros, a place that Avellana became familiar with as a student at the Ateneo de Manila, when this exclusive school for boys was still located in that “ever loyal and noble city.” The period, the years before the war, was also a familiar one with Avellana. And the types of characters in the play are individuals whose manners of dressing and ways of talking, whose big dreams and deep-reaching problems, were nothing strange to him, since he himself had known friends and relatives with the same cultural heritage and social attitudes as the Marasigan family’s.
This insight into Intramuros life possessed by Avellana is not unlike the insight of Joaquin’s. It makes the film interpretation of the play easier for the film-maker.
And, in going into the task of making Portrait into a film, Avellana has the educational background, the sophisticated understanding, to translate the elegiac play into an equally evocative film of mood, atmosphere, and pervasive sense of physical decay and moral triumph.
Can one think of any other Filipino director with as rich an educational and creative background as Avellana’s; a director who could as properly read Joaquin, with the inner eye of experience and the outer heart of knowledge?
Is there any other Filipino director who has proved his ability to communicate so lucidly, so articulately, and so brilliantly with foreign movie audiences, particularly with the critical ones, the movie critics and writers and directors who usually attend the international film festivals?
All Three Of Them
Only Avellana has had pictures, of both the narrative and the documentary types, exhibited and praised at film festivals and in art theatres in the United States and Europe.
Furthermore, since Portrait is a play written in English, and for its purpose or objective of drawing and attracting intelligent and critical audiences both local and foreign, needs to be made with English dialogue, Lamberto V. Avellana is ideal for it, since only he among all the directors in Filipino movies today, is truly capable of handling English not just fairly but with compelling authority.
With Manuel de Leon’s resources as producer, Nick Joaquin’s creative talent as writer, and Avellana’s rich experience as director, A Portrait Of The Artist As Filipino has all the chances to emerge as the best Filipino picture ever made.
Filipino films have reached such a nadir of deterioration that it is inevitable, as a law of nature, that a counter force or reaction should burgeon into the making of a film that will, in effect, elevate the Filipino film to a new stature of artistry richer than ever before.
That film is easily De Leon’s presentation of the Diadem productions of Nick Joaquin’s A Portrait Of The Artist As Filipino, a film by Lamberto V. Avellana.
Source: The Weekly Nation, September 10, 1965
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