Every year, I promise to myself to try and catch at least one film in the annual Metro Manila Film Festival, but rarely get to do so, as it falls on the busiest two weeks of the year- the Christmas holidays. Thankfully, as the film fest officially ended on January 7, I was able to carve out some time to enjoy at least one film. Out of all of the entries, I decided to go for “Ang Larawan” (“The Portrait”).
To be honest, I didn’t know much about it except for the fact that it was based on a musical whose libretto was written by the amazing Rolando Tinio, and whose score was composed by the legendary Ryan Cayabyab. I also vaguely knew that the performances were going to be good, as you had veterans such as West End star Joanna Ampil in it. However, I did not know that the musical itself was an adaptation of the play “A Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino: An Elegy in Three Scenes”, which was written by Philippine National Artist Nick Joaquin.
This isn’t the first time that this play has been translated to the silver screen, as the play, in English, was made into a black and white film in 1965.
This version of the film was directed by Loy Arcenas, with production design by Gino Gonzales, and was produced by talent manager Girlie Rodis and singer/actress Celeste Legaspi. According to reports, the film was made in order to present different fare from the usual romance, romance-comedies, and fantasy movies that dominate the country’s biggest film festival, and for me, I think they succeeded.
Before premiering locally at the 43rd Metro Manila Film Festival, it premiered at the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival on October 30, 2017. Since its premiere in the Metro Manila Film Festival, it has garnered awards such as Best Picture, Best Production Design, the Gatpuno Antonio J. Villegas Cultural Award, Best Musical Score, and Best Actress for the ones film’s lead actresses, Joanna Ampil
Video Credit: “Ang Larawan”, Official YouTube Channel
Set in October 1941, before Manila was touched by World War II, the film tells the story of two spinster sisters, Candida (Joanna Ampil) and Paula Marasigan (Rachel Alejandro), who live with their aging and sick father, Don Lorenzo Marasigan (Leo Rialp), in the heart of old Manila. Before falling ill, Don Lorenzo, a noted painter in his youth, painted a single portrait entitled “A Portrait of the Artist as A Filipino”, and gifted it to his two daughters. The rest of the film sees the struggle that the two go through as they wrestle with a life changing decision of whether or not to keep or sell the portrait in order to make ends meet in a world on the bring of war, and in a world which has quickly been leaving the past behind.
Accompanied by Ryan Cayabyab’s theatrical score, Rolando Tinio’s beautiful words, with powerful performances, and gorgeous production design, Arcenas goes beyond and delivers a powerful film that might not be perfect, but has timeless themes and questions which he challenges us to think of today. These include the question of our own crisis of national identity and asks us how much of the past we should bring with us going forwards. Do we stick to our ideals and our cultural identity, or do we do what we are good at doing an adapt with the ever changing world? Up to when is is too dangerous to live in the past, and how much is too much when it comes to adapting to progress?
It’s gorgeous production design also allows us to get a glimpse of old Manila in its heyday in its ’40s, with wonderful set pieces and costumes, that makes you ache and yearn for the days of old.
The entire cast gives great performances, from Ampil and Alejandro all the way to the interesting little cameos peppered throughout the movie of older actors who have been involved in the play and the musical in the past. I think that my biggest gripe in the entire film would be that as much as Paulo Avelino’s acting was good in the film, the same cannot be said about his singing. It wasn’t utterly terrible, it’s just that there is a notable difference as he is surrounded by actors and actresses who all can sing.
Also, it was, for me, a very successful attempt at translating a musical into a movie. I have no idea if there have been other Filipino musical films before that were adaptations of musicals, but I am highly with what they were able to do here. I think that one of the biggest advantages is that most of the cast are theater veterans. Most of these names are recognized in the local theater scene, but international audiences might have heard of Ampil before. She is a West End actress who also portrayed the role of Kim in the musical “Miss Saigon”.
“Ang Larawan” is definitely a breath of fresh air in the midst of all the usual fare that the Metro Manila Film Festival usually has. It also gives us a great adaptation of a classic Filipino play whose themes still resonate today, and it allows Filipinos to get a glimpse of the past, and get some culture in the process.
One of the things that I loved about the film is the fact that all of the themes and issues that they tackle, even though it was written in the ’50s and set in the ’40s, still resonate today.
Arcenas and Joaquin deftly ask their audiences to think and talk about our crisis of national identity, as well as the value of our past traditions, cultures, and beliefs and how much of it we can bring with us as we adapt and change with the world around us.
In both the film and play, we see Candida and Paula, who cling to the past, and defy the world that is changing around them. They live in the past, in a beautiful old house, drinking chocolate for their afternoon snack, and where they find solace in the memories of the house parties that they had there, in which old aristocrats would come and talk about art. Meanwhile, the world around them has been drastically changing. We see cars, early versions of the camera, opportunists, educated people who sneer at the old classics in favor of progress and modernization, and people who have adapted and changed for better or for worse.
The house is their sanctuary, and even though they live in the past, it isn’t enough to make ends meet for themselves and their ailing father.
In the end, Candida and Paula, after going through the torment and struggle of deciding whether to keep their father’s painting or not, emerge resplendent, still clinging to the vestiges of the past, or whatever they can hold onto before the ravages of war came and destroyed everything, paving the way for modernization.
It was also interesting how the portrait had a different effect on every character. For Candida and Paula, however, the portrait was a test. Apparently their father had painted it after they accused him of ruining their lives by continuing to be an artist, and it was only in getting rid of the painting that Paula and Candida were able to move on without a guilty conscience, and continued to stay on and live faithfully as Don Lorenzo’s daughters.
If the painting was Candida’s and Paula’s conscience, the house itself represented the consciences of the two older siblings, who had turned their backs on their past and had moved on and had become well established in their current society.
I also loved the parallels between Bitoy Camacho (Sandino Martin) and Tony Javier (Avelino). Both didn’t exactly come from rich families, and both are a product of their own times. However, Bitoy, although he has adapted to modern society, still hasn’t forgotten about the importance of the past, while Tony jumps at the opportunity to sell the painting to earn some much needed money that would solve all of his problems.
We also see here the parallels between Don Perico, an artist who became a successful senator and Don Lorenzo. Perico became successful not because he wanted to turn his back on the past and art, but because it wasn’t practical to do so; whereas Don Lorenzo clung to his past and became poorer.
However,Robert Arevalo’s performance as Perico, and him telling Candida and Paula his regrets on turning his back on art, was a powerful scene indeed.
Ampil was electric as Candida, delivering powerful scene after powerful scene. The West End actress gave it everything that she got, from her powerful vocals, to the gut wrenching performances in the scenes in which she broke down after realizing there was a practice black out on their street and when she broke down after revealing what she did to drive Paula away from her.
Alejandro has played Paula before in the musical, but she is now at the right age to portray the character better. Alejandro’s Paula was soft-spoken and very controlled, but her eyes and controlled emotion spoke volumes.
Theater veterans Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and Nonie Buencamino were great in the more villain role, something I haven’t seen Lauchengco-Yulo yet in.
As mentioned above, Avelino’s Tony Javier was every bit as charming and passionate as he is supposed to be, and gave a good performance, save for the fact that his singing, as compared to the others, wasn’t up to par.
I loved the fact that the portrait was never seen and that Don Lorenzo only was seen in the end. I didn’t think that it was necessary to see the actual portrait, and I love how much weight the character of Don Lorenzo has without actually being seen, and how he stole that ending scene even though he was on screen for just a few minutes.
Aside from the performances, the production design, score and direction were great. The pacing the story was told was just right, for me, even though the run time was two hours long.
In the end, “Ang Larawan” is not a perfect film, but it was definitely a breath of fresh air. It opened me up to actually checking out the play it was based on, and it allowed me to ponder on these timeless themes and questions. It also reassured me that there is a lot of hope in Philippine cinema moving forward, and it is a film that was definitely needed in Philippine cinema right now.
I sincerely hope that even though the Metro Manila Film Festival is done, others will pick up a copy of this film when it comes out on DVD.