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Sa North Diversion Road (Dennis Marasigan, 2005) June 9, 2009

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Festival, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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sa north diversion road

Directed by Dennis Marasigan
Cast: Irma Adlawan, John Arcilla, Rolly Inocencio, Kalila Aquilos
Based on Tony Perez’s play

Sa North Diversion Road, Dennis Marasigan’s first shot at filmmaking, is perhaps one of the earliest instances when the shortcomings of the digital as a medium become almost irrelevant to talk about, because it proves that the story, its level of maturity and intelligence, will always be the king. Marasigan may have been attracted to Tony Perez’s play for its structure – – ten vignettes of adultery played by different couples traveling along the expressway  – – but it could have also been its weakness, provided that the actors who will play the ten couples have varying degrees not only of exposure but also of talent. Monotony has always been an issue in the staging of the play because the couples share the same face – – that of the betraying husband and the betrayed wife – – and seeing it ten times with incompetent actors will surely not be the best two hours of your life inside a cold theater.

The idea of letting the same actors play the roles, which would only matter less since Marasigan has chosen the finest fruits in the first harvest, is possibly the greatest honor it has given to the material, for he has altered it without losing its strength. It is more than versatility that Irma Adlawan and John Arcilla have; I believe it is experience, something that is unique to every one, something that no other actors can do the same because they all lead a different life. All great performances are imperfect but this is the closest that one can get to flawlessness. Adlawan, with all the mightiness she can throw to outshine Arcilla, is gifted with such wonderful poise that is never tiring; one can never take his eyes off her for fear of missing a wink or a slight narrowing of her eyes. She delivers ten faces of a betrayed woman with different eyes, different ears, different hearts, and different acceptance of truth. We see her play each one of them but we see different women – – different wounds, different voices, different husbands, different pasts, different futures. She is all of them, all the wives that the betraying husband chose to ignore.

Arcilla, on the other hand, and despite the inferiority of his position, handles the role with exemplary control; the usual tone of apology, denial, and remorse of the unfaithful husband he shows is credible; we can almost see where he is coming from and what made him do it. Whether he is an old-school poet who chimes sweet words and piles promises on promises or the ill-fated praying man who gets shot in the head at the end of his prayer, Arcilla’s force is unwavering – – we see the sinner through him. I find it completely unfair when people compare his performance to Adlawan’s; that she has shown a far more memorable portrait of the wife, that she is outstanding, that she almost knocks him out in every scene. That Adlawan’s great is absolutely true, but she wouldn’t be great without him as her partner.

It is easy to credit the successful film adaptation of a play to its playwright; after all, in stage plays, directors are often billed after the writer and the actors. But when you give someone the liberty to interpret the material through images and music that can be controlled and modified to suit his intentions, regardless if he’ll be faithful or not, two things can only happen: he’ll make us sleep or he’ll make us think. If people want to see a play, they’ll go out of their way to attend performances in formal concert halls or theaters. If movies strike their fancy, the malls are the most convenient place to go. But if a play is adapted into film, how can that attract viewership, in this country if I may be clear, except for die-hard cinephiles or the curious followers of the filmmaker?

Good thing that festivals welcome these ideas with warm embrace. The funding may be insufficient but it could still go a long way especially if the utmost intention is to expose an excellent literary piece to the public, which I believe Marasigan’s objective in the first place. How many of you would still consider infidelity a taboo if almost every marriage is wrecked by it? How could it still be unacceptable if it is too commonplace? We always see it in the movies – – the unfaithful husband, the crying wife, the vacationing mistress, the destroyed marriage, the rounds of loud conversations, the kids who grow up parentless – – and perhaps some people have come to realize that committing the sin once would not crucify them as much as other people who are committing it more than once. Even in infidelity people still think through levels of transgression.

But Perez believes otherwise. Adultery, from whichever angle you look at it, may it be the howling couple in “Baliuag Exit” who finds breathing less important than screaming and throwing profanities or the sweet couple in “Meycauayan Exit” who teases each other, communicates almost wordlessly, with only the wife shouting “Kaliwete!” in the end to reveal her exact feelings, has only one face. The feeling is all the same, regardless of how it’s done. It is painful because it destroys the contract – – not the paper that states that the two people are married, blessed by god, and all those holy things but the foundation of the relationship, the house of trust it is able to build through the years, the experiences that can never happen again, the past that can only serve as a painful memory of a has-been. The varying tones of humor and seriousness in the vignettes are clearly used to draw the conclusion that looms above these contrasts: experience is unique but the feeling is not; that misery is not something we can eliminate but something that we can always keep to a minimum.

The comparison will always show up so I think it would be better to discuss it anyway. In 2002, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami released Ten, a film whose main character is a woman driving around Tehran, talking with her passengers like her son, her sister, a prostitute, and a bride. As the title suggests, it is divided into ten parts; the numbers appear on screen like a countdown. Like Sa North Diversion Road, Ten was shot in digital. All throughout the film the camera was only placed in two angles: the driving woman’s angle and her passenger’s. What Kiarostami has pulled off is that his technique has managed to blend with his film’s politics; the confinement that his characters feel is reflected on how limited we could see them, limited to the four walls of his frame.

While it could have also worked in Sa North Diversion Road, I believe it is a good call that Marasigan has not overtaken the material’s wisdom by embellishing it with such technique. It is enough that he makes good use of what the medium can offer, the close-ups, the necessary flashbacks, the overlapping of narratives, the convenience of lighting, and the use of sentimental music. Marasigan’s modesty and discipline reflect very well despite the constraints. The close-up of Adlawan’s face as she looks at her husband and his other woman kiss, as her suspicion finally receives its long-awaited confirmation, as all her reasons to fight against it suddenly took a vacation and left her alone, has allowed us to hold onto her heart to comfort her, even for a brief moment.

The ninth segment, which shows the title of the film unlike the usual exit points named after each episode, has put forth the film’s knockout punch. The singer and the songwriter talks about their life, his marriage, her mixed happiness and disappointment to his marriage, his songs, her admiration to his craft, her love for him ever since. Before the scene fades out, he says, Alam mo, sa lawak ng pag-ibig ko, alam ko maliligaw din ako e, paulit-ulit. . .walang katapusan. Everything changes, even the road is bound to change its name. And then a question walks closely to our ear: do exit points really take us to an exit, or do they just take us back from where we started?

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