Thoughtless Thoughts on Manuel Silos’ Biyaya ng Lupa (1959) September 30, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Directed by Manuel Silos
Written by Celso Al Carunungan and Pablo Naval
Cast: Rosa Rosal, Tony Santos, Joseph de Cordova, Leroy Salvador
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror/ which we are barely able to endure and are awed/ because it serenely disdains to annihilate us, thus Rilke observes in one of his popular elegies. My fascination with beauty has always been tainted with that assiduous thought – – that it lasts, that all its deceiving virtues will melt into porridges of clay, that it can transform itself into other things, that it can be evil once the hands of time have deemed it unfit to be seen, that it can eat us whole, untouched, unflustered, such flagrant error of modern ideas in a weakening, monopolized society. It reeks of perfumed nightmare. That somehow there will come a time that no one will be here to appreciate our cinema, all of us who have tried our best to rekindle its dying little flame, swaying amid the strong winds, in our small fruitful ways, some by merely watching and spreading the word, some by losing the screws in their heads by writing about films that only a few people knew, or by writing about films that almost no one knew existed, for what is the purpose of writing if not of creation, of resuscitating dead works by emphasizing their existence, that they once had their time, their glory, their own unshared fame, their much-deserved credit. That somehow the films we have lost will find their way home, here, in an old yet humble cinema where every one will give their undivided attention and unblinking eyes so as to compensate the years they had been estranged in another land or in another vinegar, and since we’re in the middle of such boundless fancies why not I imagine seeing Gerardo de Leon’s Daigdig ng mga Api in Cine Adarna one of these days, in pristine copy as it was more than fifty years ago, the theater jampacked, the equipment in perfect shape, refreshments are served, high and lowbrow critics are there, everyone I wish to see walks right in front of me, even timeless stars Barbara Perez and Roberto Arevalo, then the film starts, for two hours the only thing we hear are the impeccable dialogues and the sound of the reel rolling, such music in our virginal ears, we abstain from the sleeping world and we create our own, and the film ends, and we have come to a point when we refuse to stand from our seats, we want it to roll again, even if it’s the same picture, we want to make up for lost time, but lost history really, we want to memorize every single frame so we can pass it on to our sons and daughters, so they will believe that they have seen it without really seeing it, oh the magic of obscured cinema.
That there is enough justice in compromise is something that we must always accept as truth. It is third world cinema’s nature to embrace unrewarded achievement, to reach secondhand recognition, to welcome late acceptance, to be content with settled fates and to appreciate them the way an ordinary day breaks our expectations. The pleasure in discovering Biyaya ng Lupa four years ago in a class handled by a notorious critic always reminds me of afternoon petrichor that never goes away until the sun sets, such gleam in my face when I received my paper with 1.25 mark for reading the film, back when I still write in Filipino, reading it over and over again to please myself, which though it had too many red marks it was still a nice tap on my shoulder to pursue my plan of shifting gears. Now, with my mother beside me, to whom I share this unconditional love for old movies, I am still awed by such sweeping simplicity, a tale whose virtues are universal yet uniquely Filipino – – thus it takes place in both worlds, inside a circle of a circle of a Venn diagram, a finite set of elemental particles that makes up an honest masterpiece.
No brilliance is simple, for sure. It starts with a festive wedding, rice sprinkled at the newlyweds, dancing folks maneuvering the narrow pathway, a lovely carriage to bring the couple to the reception, the big band that accompanies the images of absolute merriment, the silent laughter of the abays, no mistake, it is a celebration of happiness. Maria (Rosa Rosal) and Jose (Tony Santos) brave their new roles as wife and husband, planting trees in the yard and tilling their small farm to support their growing family, the sweetness between them intoxicates, unmistakably real, love sweet love. Silos presents details in subdued precision, the watering of plants, the carabao on the side, the carved names of their children in the tree trunk (interestingly how he uses diegetic sounds to connote death) and the lanzones trees that carry their uncertainties until the end. The beauty in our old ways can never be measured, but Silos shows us how much of our culture we have lost and how much we have changed since then.
That nature is an essential character in the story helps a lot in building up the narrative. Their happy days have its unsuspected turn when the town’s black sheep, Bruno, rumored to have killed his wife, brings Jose’s niece to her death, an accident difficult for him to prove, and quite easily the folk’s traveling words (may tainga ang lupa, may pakpak ang balita) put him in amiss. Everyone in town desperately wants their share of kicks and punches. He goes hiding up north, with a little help from his friends who are more like idiots than traitors. Bruno’s previous encounter with Jose, a not so civil argument, flares him up to seek revenge, starting with his daughter Angelita, in a sudden disappearance of god misled by chance. Bruno rapes her. Jose finds her near the woods, for she’s supposed to bring their lunch in the farm. She gets visions of Bruno’s face every now and then, traumas overpowering her, and since then she knew her life has already taken a detour, but her family is still with her, that’s all that matters. But Bruno’s thirst for moral vindication runs loose when he shoots Jose and kills him. Silos frames the scene with irony: when Jose gets shot, Miguel, his deaf-mute son, walks below them looking for his father but there’s no way he can hear the gunshot, no way he can help his father as he falls in the ground, dead. What follows is the loathsome manifestation of their fear. Miguel goes home carrying his father, the stillness of the night groping in his skin, implying the lengths he had to go through before finding his corpse. Lito and Angelita greet him first, then Arturo, then Maria who wails the loudest, who pains the hardest. I thought the tragedy would be sentimentalized; but Silos did the hurtful breakout without prolonging it, he knows no luxury of unnecessary drama. As their lives go on, Maria’s problems become more and more felt, even more physical that she has to plow the field on her own. Arturo, her second son who assumes the eldest, has dreams of going to Manila. So he did, getting his share of savings, and later on when he comes back in dashing Americana, he recklessly asks for his share of the farm. Maria sells it right at the moment, he leaves with his crass girlfriend, only to return with all his hopes and dreams busted. Corrupted neighbors, now corrupted son. Bruno’s wicked plan strikes again, now to destroy all the lanzones flowers that begin to sprout, all Jose has been waiting for when he was still alive, the greedy man whom Maria owes her debt for her farm’s lot conceives the crime so she’d never be able to pay him back, morbid logic isn’t it, and asks for Bruno and his pals’ help. They attack by night, steal the wooden noisemaker, and destroy the sprouts. Maria makes out the danger from the rustling of leaves, the abominable silence, and she calls for her son’s help. Slowly, Miguel has managed to crawl far and pull the SOS trigger, Bruno and his friends captured and tortured. And in a month’s time the lanzones trees bear the fruits of their hardships, Maria and her family in ephemeral consolation of comfort, not a happy ending but definitely a hopeful one, the tone of Filipino life to be borrowed by Philippine prose in the latter years.
It is interesting to note that Biyaya ng Lupa is in great company of timeless figures. 1959 marks the first wave of films from the French rebels – – 400 Blows, Breathless, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Les Cousins – – as well as the release of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Sirk’s Imitation of Life, Hawks’ Rio Bravo, and war-themed classics Ballad of a Soldier and Fires on the Plain. To press it much further, the turn of the 60s also prepares the art-hungry world to the notorious works of Antonioni, Fellini, Godard, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dylan, and Kael. But contrary to the subversive renaissance in the West (not to mention Kurosawa’s popularity among its audience), the quiet revolution in Asia is also taking place – – Gerardo de Leon, Guru Dutt, and Satyajit Ray made their hailed masterpieces, and the death of Ozu introduces the world into an unknown body of works soon to be influential to budding filmmakers like Eric Rohmer, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Jim Jarmusch. Like Ozu, Silos (at least in this film) values the significance of careful inspection, the deeper probe in the fall of human relationships, and the lingering sadness in the absence of contact between family members. They share a warm and affectionate observation toward their characters, Ozu with his framing and seamless cuts and Silos with his eye for details and narrative quirks, without compromising the emotional burden of their story. Their wisdom is like a brush of wind in our ears, almost apologetic but intimately understanding.
Patriarchy is an embracing theme in Biyaya ng Lupa, something it presents and argues so much that the complacency in the beginning is a wry foretelling of the mishaps to come. When Jose dies and Arturo leaves, the only people left in the family are women, a child, and a deaf mute – – the popular representations of weakness in a male-dominated belief. Silos emphasizes their importance by depicting their loss yet he also shows how the living can survive without them, that they can manage in spite of everything. The mother figure is shown emphatically, not without grace, willing to sacrifice, and willing to bear the sins of her children. Family is a central theme among Asian filmmakers, a subject that range from epic socio-political backgrounds like Zhang Yimou’s To Live to minimalist tales of urban solitude such as Ozu’s Tokyo Story. The very thought that we are deeply affiliated to our own roots (not to pull down our Western peeps of course) shows the complex meanderings and nuances that our narratives can drive through, yet they can be as universal as they can be, emotional details that both captivate and illuminate. In this case Philippine cinema has its own contribution of singularity, that is, the Filipino concept of happiness always comes with a price. A rewarding end to cap off the aches, the usufruct waving back to the years of imagined existence and telling us to let go.
*Biyaya ng Lupa is one of the films screened in Sine Klasiks: Mga Natatanging Pelikula ni Rosa Rosal, along with Anak Dalita, Badjao, and Sakada, held in Robinson’s Movieworld Galleria from September 17-23.