REVIEW | ‘Ang Larawan’ is enjoyable and relevant despite its limiting structure

December 9, 2017 - 9:22 AM
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Rachel Alejandro and Joanna Ampil in 'Ang Larawan.'

Based on the Nick Joaquin play “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” the Metro Manila Film Festival entry “Ang Larawan” is a musical that stays true to Joaquin’s play, a sort of call-to-arms for artists to not let go of their ideals and their dreams.

It’s the story of two spinster sisters, Candida and Paula, in pre-World War II Intramuros, who are taking care of their father, the artist Don Lorenzo Marasigan.

Of high stature yet with no money, the two sisters have been shunned by society and are left to fend for themselves as they have been abandoned by their older siblings, Manolo and Pepang. All they have to their name is a house they cannot afford to keep and the last painting of Don Lorenzo, a self-portrait, which he has given to them to keep.

There are many themes running through this play and I remember it well, having taught it in a Philippine Literature class in the early 2000s. Seeing it now on screen, within the context of our current times, new layers rise to the surface from the material. Women had very little choices in those times, they had to be married or live in servitude to well-off family members. Candida and Paula’s lives and reputations were at stake and the film sort of reminds us why the feminist movement is badly needed today.

Playing off very strongly is the argument between “selling out” and giving up on artistic ideals in favor of a comfortable life over the ideals and traditions of the past that have given their lives meaning. It raises the question about art’s place in the world and if it has any value other than monetary. Everyone from Manolo and Pepang, to the boarder living in the house, Tony, who are trying to get the sisters to give up the painting in exchange for a comfortable life for themselves.

There is an old-school feel to the film, from Ryan Cayabyab’s lush music to Rolando Tinio’s screenplay and lyrics. The film in itself feels like a relic, a product of another era, and when taken into account the film’s message, it sort of explains its reason for existing.

Director Loy Arcenas makes full use of his camera to try and keep the action bristling with energy and passion despite almost all of it happening in just one room in Don Lorenzo’s house.

While it is a joy to watch the performances from Rachel Alejandro (Paula), Sandino Martin (Bitoy, a family friend), Nonie Buencamino (Manolo), Menchu Lauchengco (Pepang), Paulo Avelino (Tony), and a stellar turn for Joanna Ampil (Candida), the play’s story and structure limit the film’s capacity to be truly cinematic.

Everything is so contained in the living room of the house, almost eighty percent of the whole film is set there, that it feels limited and restrained. Ryan Cayabyab’s music is lush and soars at its emotional high points, which works on stage, but in the film, it overpowers the scenes.

Near the end, there’s a powerful song that ends really big that it felt like an ending. It could have been a proper ending for the film, but it continues on afterwards, prolonging the catharsis.

And because of the wordiness of the libretto, certain scenes would do better if it were spoken through than sung.

But the film is not without its charm. In fact, there’s a lovely little number with Zsa Zsa Padilla as a lady who visits and has a conga dance number that fits just right in and leaves a smile on your face.

There’s care involved in every aspect, even the casting of Paulo Avelino, who appears to be the only non-classically trained singer in the group, but it works well as his character is rough around the edges and is a pianist in vaudeville. The contrast to his singing style works for the character.

To be honest, I was scared when I saw the trailer because it felt dated and I wasn’t sure the material would translate well on screen. But I was pleasantly surprised. By the end of the movie, I felt that the film’s message was clear, I had a wonderful time watching it, and the timelessness of the work holds true.