Ancestral homes are things of beauty, but also hold the memories of the past and the legacy of a family. Anywhere you go, whether it be the Philippines or the United States, ancestral homes can be safe refuges and places of celebration; and it can also be the only things that link us back to our past. However, there are times that these places, sadly, end up being unkempt and uncared for, and end up representing the past that we refuse to let go of. This was the case in director Loy Arcenas’ entry to the 2011 Cinemalya Film Festival, Niño; which was also a careful study of the breaking down of a family well past their glory days after a tragedy occurs in the family. Aside from this, it is also a careful study of how the times can be unforgiving to the past generations.
I was fortunate to be able to catch this screening on February 22, 2018, as the UP Film Center had a retrospective on three Loy Arcenas films- “Niño” (2011), “ReQuieme!” (2012), and “Ang Larawan” (2017). (You can read my review of “Ang Larawan” here.) The retrospective event was from February 20-22, and the screenings on Feb. 22 included a question and answer portion from the director himself, after each film.
We were a small audience, but we learned interesting tidbits about “Niño”, “Ang Larawan”, and his upcoming film “Mirador”; and he related his creative process in creating “Niño”.
We were also lucky to have one of the lead actresses, Fides Cuyugan-Asensio, present as well, and she was honest and willing to answer the questions posed to her.
“Niño” tells the story of the Lopez-Aranza clan, a family that used to wealthy and politically connected, now fallen from grace. The patriarch of the family is the old, ailing former Congressman Gaspar Lopez-Aranza (Tony Mabesa), who is taken care of by his sister, Celia (Fides Cuyugan-Asensio), who used to be a former opera singer. Celia’s daughter, Merced (Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino) holds the accounts and helps manage the household.
Things are disrupted for them after Celia’s son, Mombic (Arthur Acuna), a man who cannot hold down a job, visits with his small son, Antony (Jhiz Deocareza); and after tragedy strikes, causing Gaspar’s only daughter, Raquel (Raquel Villavicencio) to come home from the US to manage things. Things rise to a boiling point after family secrets are revealed, and after Raquel makes certain decisions that end up driving Celia to desperation.
The film, however, is called “Niño” due to the fact that at a certain point, the innocent Antony begins to look upon the image of the Sto. Niño, starts regarding him as his personal superhero, and his grandmother dresses him up in a Sto. Niño outfit. However, looking back at his work, Arcenas mentioned that while the Sto. Niño theme was in his mind while making it, he wishes that he could have entitled the film “Niños” instead, as all of them, even Celia and Gaspar had been children once.
The film becomes an interesting study into the inner workings of a Filipino family that had been wealthy once, and who manages to get by due to the the money that is being sent by a relative living from the US. It was also an interesting commentary on the situations of some sons who cannot seem to keep a business alive or a job, and are forced to work abroad to earn enough to support their families.
Young Antony ends up becoming the audience surrogate, as he ends up taking all of this in, as well as some of the other secrets that are kept hidden behind closed doors.
The performances, and in particular, the performance of Cuyugan-Asensio was phenomenal, from her emotionally charged deliveries to her singing. (Apparently, all the singing in the film had been shot live!) She effectively portrayed Celia to perfection, and her line, “Paabot nga ng patis (Please pass me the fish sauce)”, was delivered with perfection, making an emotionally charged scene lighten up a bit without ruining the entire scene.
Centenera-Buencamino, Acuna, Mabesa and Villavicencio were phenomenal as well, making their characters seem all too real.
For an international audience, the way that they built up the tension between the family members and the breaking point in which they all started pointing fingers at each other on the dining table, may be a bit too melodramatic, but for Filipino standards, it was realistic and not as melodramatic as most Filipino tv shows are.
Also, I will have to say that this is a film that is not for young audiences, and there may be some themes that are not suitable for young audiences.
Arcenas’ directorial debut is impressive, given that he was learning things on the go while making this film, as he originally came from the world of theater. He was able to create a film that is nowhere near perfect, but is a film that most Filipinos can relate to, one way or another.
Now, you know the drill, from here on out, there will be spoilers!
Aside from the fact that the situations in this film are all too familiar to Filipinos, I found it interesting that the entire film makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable or as if there is something off all the time.
For example, there is that scene in which Celia and her friend are laughing and reminiscing over old times, and that is quickly ended after Gaspar suffers from a heart attack. Even the part in which Gaspar’s friends are there to serenade him, and he ends up dying while they sing his favorite song, a scene which should be beautiful and poetic, ends up feeling a little bit uncomfortable. Maybe its because you know that even though they are happy at those particular moments, you know that everything will just crumble apart right away, even at the slightest touch.
The family dynamic of the Lopez-Aranzas feels all too real, because we have either gone through it, or we know people who are going through hard times. It is also an interesting commentary on how people nowadays treat their own relatives, especially as they start becoming older and older, and what they expect from them afterwards. It is also interesting to see how the family starts breaking down as the thought of the impending sale of the house looms Celia and her family, and secrets start coming out.
It is interesting to note that the film ends with Celia looking over her once wonderful garden, knowing that things will get worse from here on out.
Aside from family, the film gives out a powerful message on the things that we hold on to, and how sometimes, we have to let them go and adapt, especially with the changing times. Things like selling an ancestral house or land should no longer cause family members to be guilty about it, and feeling as if they are bad children, especially if it isn’t practical anymore.
However, amidst all of this is the innocent Antony, who will grow up in a different way, without clinging to the past, but always moving forward. For him, all of what happened, and his grandmother will be memories, but Celia should feel a little bit encouraged that her grandson will always remember her as an amazing woman who tried to keep being strong, even if she was way past her prime.
In the end, “Niño” is an all too real depiction of the breaking down of a Filipino family, especially after tragedy strikes and desperation sets in. With regards to Arcenas’ work, “Niño” showed his potential as a film maker, and thankfully, he hasn’t stopped ever since then.
Have you seen “Niño”? What did you think of the film? What did you like or did not like about it? Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Image Source: Official Cinemalaya Film Festival Site