Review: Alchemy of Achievement

Light and Its Shadowy Underside

Money connotes evil. Nay, money has come to denote evil. Entirely evil. Simplistically that is how Robert Bresson coldly dissects the figure and presence of money in L'Argent: a manipulative demon with its accompanying materialist ideology, a trail of murder and crime lying in its wake. Nothing good can come out of it: money reeks. Enter Ang Kwento ni Mabuti, a film that reimagines this signifier of sin, repurposing money for yet another intention. The old aura of money seems to invert and shift colors in this new and commendable film by Mes de Guzman: foregrounding the question of what is virtuous in a world where nothing is unalloyed, where ethical and moral absolutes are a pipe dream even for utopians among us. Here many of the dependent characters are deeply flawed and face an unpromising earthly future, their sins wearing out their originality and mortality, by the time the virtuous Mabuti is placed in the hot seat, tested by poverty's ineluctable problem and a bagful of money.

In its searching of worldly deliverance, Ang Kwento ni Mabuti is not unlike an old morality play, where its title character has an agon with her sense of right and wrong, whether it will serve an individual or a social good (at least her own society), but the stakes are less otherworldly and sublime, more immediate and mundane: terrestrial salvation. Forget the world to come, it seems to imply. Pragmaticism and consequentialism are not untenable, it whispers. Mabuti must read the fine print that comes with the money and the semaphores of circumstance: isn't it value neutral?

All but a truism to say that everything Nora Aunor touches turns, even from dross, into gold: the alchemy of Mabuti is no exception. Nora lends tremendous cachet to it by her stellar thespian presence, reaffirmed here with understated perfomance in the Ilocano idiom. But what must be equally recognized is how Mes de Guzman’s authorial achievement lays equal claim to this movie, based on a story he wrote some time ago without an explicit wish of making it into a medium for a Nora Aunor. Everyone around de Guzman, however, simply couldn’t help discerning the bright adumbration of the great actress in the role of Mabuti. De Guzman kept his fingers crossed and one day, with a connection made and consummated, she simply showed up on the set.

Ang Kwento ni Mabuti may present a scenario so well-trodden as to be negligible -- how to transform the matter of money, the crux of conscience? -- but de Guzman handles it in such a way that we simultaneously shake and nod our heads by the time his film concludes. Chances are, most will agree with its signals of predestiny, but not without a sneaking question left hanging silently somewhere within. But it is all part and parcel of Mabuti’s own passion. Along the way, she, like a pilgrim in progress, is tested and tempted, and when we suspect coming on an obligatory Christian ending, de Guzman inverts the influence of religion: Mabuti’s own definition of virtue comes to the fore. Remember how the devilish son gets thwarted time and again in de Guzman’s earlier film, Diablo? This time the progress of Mabuti’s journeys gets often interrupted, but all is stoically shouldered. That is Mabuti’s deceptive grace. Mabuti, like a ministering saint, fields and keeps the needy under her wings: the daughters of her errant daughter, the equally cavalier and wayward son, and the many neighbors who need her faith and shamanic succor.

But in greater moral terms, if Bresson fingers money as filthy lucre, passed around as a gun in a genuine Russian roulette, de Guzman elevates the matter of money beyond something like a Kantian category, although we might be convinced we are trapped in one with all the crookedness and immorality surrounding Mabuti. Perhaps when, in the hardscrabble, poverty-stricken life that must be waged in the mountains of Nueva Vizcaya – where Communist insurgency remains; bankrobbers, too -- Mabuti’s countenance seems to change at the sight of money, hinting at the vortex it represents, money that's not rightfully hers, the dangers of fate she thinks are playing tricks on her prove to be self-perpetuating and self-terminating. Fate seems here to tempt and ultimately withhold its own dangers and risks. That is perhaps, the one of two knocks on the film - along with its raft of piggybacking characters. -- Or is it simply the nature of fate?

Mabuti, in this sense, is the incarnation of sainthood made pragmatically attuned to the times. Far from a daughter who has children by many different men, a son who adds another, Nora's Mabuti remains resilient and earnest reminiscent of a Giulietta Massina through it all: she has a shy smile behind a dusky and weathered exterior. When not minding her many granddaughters, she has always enough time – the patience of a saint -- to dispel the incessant threat of rabies and venom with some spit and her magical poison-sucking stones.

Local color proves both bane and boon for the film: the mostly non-professional characters, Novo Vizcayanos, come off as mostly wooden if you speak their language, but they also have the unique presence, the sui generis, to enchant you by their strangeness – even as de Guzman makes no secret of his enthusiasm for his home province, his intent to democratize filmmaking in those parts. Sometimes, however, the movie's stab at equal opportunity threatens to spin off to many loose ends and subplots that divert with their seeming function of dedramatized anthropology. On the other hand, indigenous details may divert in a good way -- e.g. the playthings of the forest, the sumpak, the proliferation of shops for secondhand clothes or wag-wag stores, the corruption of local officials with jueteng, the many military checkpoints, the superstitions around faith healers. Somehow, it all works -- all accretes to texture. Forget how de Guzman passes off the town of Aritao as a city, because these are the ramifications of a journey of fate where, from de Guzman’s perspective, nothing is simply as it seems. Even as Nora has declared an earnest interest in a film about villainy, the seeds of evil have been subtly planted here, only justified with a benevolent end, deep within Mabuti's bosom. Think about it. Light, after all, may never occur without its underside of shadow.  


Review: A Triumph of Underacting

The Faith Healer Is Not a Saint
-- from the blog Adventures in Neverland

The Superstar of the Philippine cinema, Ms. Aunor, has proven once more why she is the greatest living actress in the country with her latest film. She played Mabuti (which means good in English) Dela Cruz, a faith healer in far away place in Luzon, whose simple, idyllic life in a scenic mountain in Nueva Vizcaya was suddenly shattered when she was handed a bag full of money (five million pesos) by a stranger that she met in a bus when she decided to go to the city, one of the rare times that she went out of her impoverished barrio, to fix a problem about their land, which was in danger of being foreclosed because of non-payment of a loan.

The stranger, a woman, it turned out, was part of a group that robbed a bank in the city. The woman was killed by the military after she tried to escape. But before she jumped out of the bus to evade the law enforcers, she managed to give the bag to Mabuti with a request that the faith healer would please look for her daughter who was living with relatives in a nearby town and to take care of her. Mabuti, of course, had no idea what was inside the bag. She only discovered that there was a lot of money inside when she opened it on the way to her home.

It was at this point that her character was tested and the movie became more interesting. Will she return the money? To whom? Will she keep it so that she can finally pay for her loan and keep the land, send her grand daughters to school? Will she live up to her name?

The film was more than just a modern parable of what was good and bad, of what was right and wrong. Mabuti's dilemma became even more meaningful, more poignant given what was happening in our country at present, where legislators were accused of pocketing billions of pesos of taxpayers' money to the detriment of the poor, whose lives should have been better had the money been spent well.

Just like most of her brilliant performances in the past, notably ‘Himala’, ‘Bona’, ‘Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos’, ‘Bulaklak sa City Jail’, Ms. Aunor made use of her expressive eyes to convey a bagful of emotions that her character was feeling and not feeling. But unlike in her previous performances, where she sometimes had to resort to overacting (raising her voice, crying hysterically), she was more subdued, more confident, more in control here. With minimal dialogues (all in Ilocano, by the way, ala Meryl Streep), Ms. Aunor conveyed joy, sadness, confusion, bewilderment, melancholy, then finally, freedom, quietly, with very few words. Hers was a triumph of underacting, if there is such a thing.

I was surprised why Ms. Aunor did not win the best actress trophy at the festival's end when this was her best performance to date, even better than her comeback film after a long hiatus, ‘Thy Womb’ which won for her accolades not just in the local film festivals and award giving bodies, but overseas as well.

However, given her stature in the local movie industry, the number of awards that she had won here and abroad, I don't think another trophy still matters to Ms. Aunor and her fans, who came out in full force to make sure that the movie would be a triumph not only in terms of awards but at the box-office as well.

Aside from Ms. Aunor, the movie also featured notable performances from a cast of mostly unknown actors and actresses, especially the four young girls who played her granddaughters.

Mes De Guzman, who wrote and directed the movie (and won in both categories), has proven that there is indeed beauty in simplicity, poetry in everyday life, and a reward for every good deed (or conversely, a punishment for a bad deed). The universe, after all, is watching and listening.

Review: Refreshing and Phenomenal

Pathos and Ethos In Modern Morality Tale

From the title alone, Mes de Guzman’s latest film Ang Kwento ni Mabuti sounds like an old fable for children with a moral lesson. But don’t be deceived by the title, or for that matter, by the pleasant and charming rural life and landscape it presents. For beneath the wholesome surface of this modern-day parable lies a fatalistic view worthy of an Ibsen play or a Bergman film.

Set in the picturesque backwoods of Nueva Vizcaya, Ang Kwento ni Mabuti, which was screened in selected Metro Manila theaters during the Cine Filipino Film Festival last September, opens with a panoramic view of the mountains covered with ominous storm clouds. Its lead character Mabuti (Nora Aunor) is walking alone on a road, a foreshadowing of her destiny and that of her family.

Through Rose-Colored Glasses

Though not exactly easy and smooth-sailing, life for Mabuti in this small but peaceful mountain village is uncomplicated and unhurried. She tends to her tiny piece of farmland and looks after her ailing mother, her four carefree granddaughters, and her two hapless children who struggle to make something good out of their misfortunes: Ompong (Arnold Reyes) who’s always between jobs and Angge (Mara Lopez) who keeps making the wrong decisions.

But while she is aware that life is not a bed of roses, Mabuti looks at her circumstances through rose-colored lenses, taking each of life’s challenges in stride. Unlike her mother who holds a more realistic and defensive outlook in life, Mabuti shrugs off every problem that comes her way. This she does without any effort because her goodness and faith in what is good are as innate in her as her name.

Moral Dilemma

And like all things good, Mabuti’s good-naturedness is about to be tested by a series of twists and turns in her otherwise halcyon world. For Mabuti, they are nothing but little unexpected bumps on the road. But for her mother, it is fate plain and simple.

After receiving a letter from the bank demanding a payment for a loan, Mabuti goes to the city to seek financial help. The events that follow will find her at a crossroad that forces her to make a difficult choice between the uncertain future of her family and the good straight path she has always known.

Local Dialect and Folk Culture

With all scenes shot in the hinterlands of Nueva Vizcaya and all dialogues spoken in Ilocano (with English subtitles), Ang Kwento ni Mabuti is rich in local color and cultural value. Folk beliefs and practices are portrayed in a light-hearted manner, such as in the scene where Mabuti, a healer, gives medical care to a boy bitten by a dog several times. Also, the film depicts the “bayanihan” spirit so typical among village people, especially in times of calamity and emergency. In fact, almost every character in this film exudes kindness in his or her own small way, all revolving around or gravitating towards Mabuti’s own inexhaustible well of generosity and empathy for others.

Refreshingly Simple

What is most remarkable about the film is how it depicts rural life just like it is, sans the stereotypes and clichés one is most likely to see in a film less imaginative in thematic treatment and narrative technique. For one, the characters are poor but witty, the plot simple but refreshing, the setting bucolic but inspiring, and the theme universal but personal. And though it deals essentially with individual moral choices, the film somehow addresses key economic and socio-political issues that plague life in the countryside such as poor infrastructure, lack of agrarian reform, bureaucracy, corruption, and insurgency. In spite of these issues, Ang Kwento ni Mabuti is not a political commentary but a personal journey of faith in all that is good in us.

Phenomenal Acting

All told, the film would not have been as potent had it not been for the brilliant performance by its lead star Nora Aunor. Just as Mabuti’s well of kindness does not run dry, so Nora Aunor’s depth as an actress cannot be measured or matched. Delivering her lines in fluent Ilocano from start to finish, she makes us believe she is not the Nora Aunor acting the role of Mabuti. Rather, what we see is Mabuti being brought to life by the bigger-than-life portrayal of Aunor.

Once again, Aunor shows us that great acting is both cathartic and hypnotic. Her character’s transformation-- from a cheerful, happy-go-lucky idealist to a sad and hopeless fatalist-- is so gradual and subtle that it is almost impossible to tell where her happiness ends and her pain begins. This is most evident in the scene where Mabuti looks at her sleeping mother in one room, and her sleeping grandchildren in another. And in the final scene, the story of Mabuti leaves us dumbfounded, wondering what final choice Mabuti has made, or whether it was fate making the choice for her after all.


Review: One Tale, Two Ovations

By NEL COSTALES, blogger (1505 Film Avenue)
Everybody it seems has a favorite acting highlight of Nora Aunor in Ang Kwento ni Mabuti. The veteran actress squeezes pure acting juice from her bag of tricks. She plays a well-loved healer named Mabuti. There is the scene showing Mabuti bewildered with the contents of a heavy burden of a bag. Another memorable scene shows her stealthily entering the house and promptly hiding her bag on an old trunk. Both scenes are dazzling, delicious displays of thespic excellence. 

The little moments though are the ones I treasure. Try to watch Mabuti's facial gestures after every healing session. A dog-eater of a neighbor gets his comeuppance from aggressive canines. The neighbor seeks the help of Mabuti every time he gets bitten. We see Mabuti with her charming smile after every session. There's a big change however with her reaction after treating the neighbor's snake bite. The smile is not as sunny as ever. It must have something to do with her being whisked off her ride and the need to pay fare once more.

Another crucial scene is Mabuti's partaking of the yummy Ilocano delicacy called “tupig.” She munches them quickly and yearns for some more. She doesn't grab one right away. She waits for the owner to look her way before asking for another piece. This segment sets up beautifully to Mabuti getting hold of a treasure. She seeks to dispatch of the money because it is not hers. 

What would Jesus do? What would you do if you get a windfall of money? Mabuti is put in a dilemma because the money can save her mortgaged land. In the end, she adheres to the basic rule of returning back things to the rightful owner.

Director Mes de Guzman is on a roll. Every film festival entry of his either wins the Best Picture award or nabs him the Best Director award. For the CineFilipino film Ang Kwento ni Mabuti, he gets both awards along with the Best Screenplay award. His stories capture vividly the rural scene in Nueva Vizcaya. The improvised home water system segment is a beauty. The army of insects shoo Mabuti away from going the wrong path. Then, there are those maddening landslides, jueteng, and verdant scenery. I relate deeply with the provincial values of his characters. 

Nora Aunor may not be a Miss World winner or a CineFilipino Best Actress winner, but she brought life to a beautiful winning character. Mabuti is goodness personified. She refuses to accept donations from patients. She shares her snack with a hot-headed bus driver. She radiates with the glow of inner beauty. It is interesting to note that her mother's advice is similar to what the mother of Miss World Megan Young aptly said, 'you can never go wrong with goodness.' Indeed, the kindness and honesty of Mabuti is worth emulating.

No Ordinary Story

Young Jose Rizal threw the remaining pair of his slippers into the river and said, “A slipper would be useless without its pair.”

King Solomon--to settle a dispute--decided to split an infant into two halves and effectively identified the real mother.

From school textbooks to the Bible and even in movies, we hold our breaths in anticipation on how our hero or heroine respond to a moral crisis confronting him/her - from the simple to the complex - because through the consequences of their decisions, we are instructed and inspired.

In the Bernal classic Relasyon, Marilou (Vilma Santos) is torn as she accepts a part-time schedule by lover Emil (Christopher de Leon). What mistress would reject a sharing scheme proposed by the husband and approved by the legal wife?

Marilou’s dilemma is child’s play compared to Sophie’s Choice. In Alan Pakula’s Holocaust tale, Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep) was asked to choose which of her two children would be gassed and she has to make that decision immediately or both children die. She survived the Holocaust but the decision to have her daughter gassed hunted her all her life until its tragic end.


In the thriller No Country For Old Men, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) never went through any conflict when he found a stash of cash. From the time he got hold of the drug money from a deal gone wrong, his only problem is how to run away with it as fast as he can. His only rule in life: finder’s keeper. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen made sure this isn’t about the right and wrong choices. This is simply about the hunt for the man with the drug money. And when the hunter is a psychotic killer whose weapon is a portable pressure tank, the movie becomes a bloody, violent thriller.


What if the finder is a poor woman with a heart of gold?

When I first heard of the premise of the Aunor-De Guzman collaboration, I was skeptical because money is overused in many art and literary pieces-- from El Filibusterismo to Fargo to Misteryo sa Tuwa, money seduces, money kills, money is burnt like a source of plague when the damage is already widespread.

Dragging. Predictable. Gasgas na tema. But no problem could be bigger for Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti than the fact that it is coming on the heels of the majestic Thy Womb. How can a suspect Mes De Guzman top a Dante at his best? Or more importantly, how can a Nora top a Nora at her sublime peak?

The first frames rolled. Mes De Guzman is a hypnotist. Nora Aunor is a chameleon. And Ang Kwento ni Mabuti is as powerful a morality tale as any of the most revered in the genre.


Nora Aunor plays Mabuti dela Cruz. She is everything to a poor family of an unfortunate son and daughter, playful granddaughters and a grumpy mother. They live in a remote mountain hut “na walang magkakainteres”. She is hardworking and has heart to help her townmates in anyway she can –she heals dog bites using saliva and a white stone. Like Shaleha in Thy Womb, Mabuti is a source of joy to her neighborhood. But unlike Shaleha in Thy Womb, Mabuti seemed fine with everything coming her way. She can shrug off every crisis--impending or present-- and she calms everyone with a hug and a smile.


Then the real crises come, her mother is terminally ill and the land is about to be repossessed due to delayed payments. But a tougher test is coming. Five million pesos in cold cash falls literally on her lap. The money is stained with the blood of rebels and hold-up victims. The goodness in Mabuti is now under severe conflict.


De Guzman is no clown. He is not for a show. He shows the truth. The sad truth. The truth we don’t want to see. My friend Janna after watching Diablo became a fan and it’s no mystery. Mes De Guzman’s storytelling style is without compromise. In fact – and now I understand the disappointments of some – he has ‘no’ regard for his audience. In the Star Cinema era of captive market, audience tests and audience likeability, here comes the new breed of independent artists with their shaking cams and unique stories waiting for an audience not to applaud but to be appalled. Mes is not out to impress. He is out to pounce on his audience’s heart and pierce it to awakening.

Dragging? Scenes after scenes – I was hooked from the very start. The rugged mountainous trek, the magic realism, the characters, the rebel war, the scene-stealing barangay captain. Then there’s Nora.


Nora’s prayer scene and moon scenes in Thy Womb have not only given her four international awards. It raised the bar of excellence even for her. And just when we thought Shaleha cannot be topped, here comes another spellbinding performance from Nora. From her walks with her grandchildren to her tending the irrigation to manning the pigs, Nora is every move, every square inch Mabuti dela Cruz--the farmer. But what amazes me more is Nora’s ability to make her two recent characters--Shaleha and Mabuti-- entirely different from each other. Shaleha as the loving but determined barren midwife and Mabuti as the cheerful and calm farmer and faithhealer. How she manages to hide from me any similarities of acting is a mystery. Technique? Meticulous guidance of De Guzman? Pure genius? Luck? Only God knows, for even great thespians like Streep, Nicholson and Dench keep acting mannerisms as they jump from one character to another. The total distinction between Mabuti and Shaleha is simply creepy. Was it the same Nora Aunor who played both? Or there are really two different Nora Aunor’s? Ghostly. Creepy. Just look at the Mabuti looking around, clutching the bag of money all alone in the rugged mountain road. Look at the eyes of fear and defiance. One critic wrote that the performance is ‘one for the books’. I say – ‘a performance someone must write a book about’.



As the film ends, Mes De Guzman is clever enough not to hinge the greatness of this psychological moral drama on surprising endings or dramatic twists.

At the final scene where Mabuti is travelling with her family inside a van, I focused my attention on Mabuti’s eyes.

Gone is the tortured look. Gone is the cheerful look.

There is now calm resolve in her eyes.

In No Country For Old Men, the finder of the money-- because of his clear practical stand-- knew instantly he had to run away to hide the money but failed and met a tragic death.

In Ang Kwento Ni Mabuti, the finder of the money-- because of her virtuous nature--cannot decide and was confused at the beginning. That eyes at the finale confirmed she now knows what to do with it.

In an imaginary Best Actress contest, multi-awarded Superstar Nora Aunor will be defeated by a certain Mabuti dela Cruz-- a poor, virtuous woman who found a stash of cash.

Nora’s eyes expresses. Mabuti’s eyes conceals.


Review: Gaze of Grace

Spherical Sympathy 
By JASON PILAPIL JACOBO, member of the Young Critics Circle (YCC)

A world is imagined to be more shapely when the geometric configuration of the sphere takes over the idea of landscape. Or else terrain falls back into that ancient conceit of flatness. Of course this historicizing belongs to the colonial order, but the cartographic claim is enabling for those whose place on earth is threatened by the techne of, let's say, geodesy. Such is the rift that needs to be resolved by the eponymous character played by Nora Aunor in Mes de Guzman’s Ang Kwento ni Mabuti.

The narrative pursues the labors of a peasant woman who forages what remains of the verdure of a piece of land that belongs to her clan but now needs to be ransomed from certain laws which demarcate the earth and expel those who have long nurtured it. Mabuti's mother (Josephina Estabillo) dreads the day that would find them living in a hut suspended from a tree at the edge of a cliff, but Mabuti refuses to succumb to that banishment from a sphere they have already emplotted as sacred.

To anticipate the good that is to come, and to internalize this practice of patience, Mabuti assumes the role of the shaman: summoner of the spirits, interlocutor of the elements, Aeolian harp on Nueva Vizcayan earth that plays the music of the spheres. With saliva and stone, Mabuti converses with the pharmakon (poison) of venom as the pharmakon (antidote) of devotion, bargains with the universe to remove the contagion, and restitutes the order of benevolence. All shall be well, because the world is enfolded into a state of grace. It may not be visible, but the good, in God’s time, shall foreground itself. The figure that completes the sphere is an embrace from the firmaments. Mabuti is a widow, and her son (Arnold Reyes) and daughter (Mara Lopez) have been taken away from her by metropolitan commerce and diasporic exchange, but with crone-mother and four elfin girl-grandchildren, the shaman asserts the insurmountable place of sympathy in a world that must wax in fortitude when fortune is on the wane.

Mes de Guzman has crafted a film whose milieu musters the enclosures and the extensions of what could be the scope of a cinema of a considerable degree of independence: the sphere of a locality whose roots and rhizomes can only allow the cosmos to open itself up to both providence and peril, which includes a bridge that is never completed, and military checkpoints which must delay travel into the city. The agon that emerges out of the depths must tilt fate toward disaster or away from it. This cusp allows the hailstone to hold within its core a precipitate of insight on cosmic change and the swarm to hover above the ambivalence of an ethic. This “dialectical image” empowers the writing to pursue the mystique against all manner of mystifying. The crisis then is only fomented not to threaten the place of the good but to test the ground on which its matter could speak.

The money that Mabuti inherits from Nelia (Sue Prado), a woman summoned and surrendered by the local insurgency, is not so much a metaphor of corruption but a metonym of corruptibility. The spell around the cash stolen from possibly the same bank that is keeping the title of Mabuti’s ancestral land may enchant the shaman. It is her misrecognition of the sorcery that must be apprehended. The good is intimated in the promise of goods, but only after the fetish about capital decays. Hence, two prospects from within Mabuti’s sphere appeal as objects of the gift: the four girl-children’s collegiate education and the crone-mother’s recovery from metastasis. And yet, these options remain improvident. When Mabuti finally resolves the compromise, the categorical imperative divorces itself from any possible imperial category. Mabuti is not turned into a philanthropist.At that moment, the exchange value is hinged upon the girl-child Marife, the daughter of the insurgent who sneaks the money inside Mabuti’s bag before sheis killed by the military. Marife’s term of ransom may be fiscalized by a known amount, but it can only be accounted for by an interminable capacity—Mabuti herself—the only sympathy that can correspond to the girl-child’s subaltern state.

The sanction of this ethic is suffered with an elegiac pace by the syntax of the sympathy, Nora Aunor. Her understanding of the pastoral is accurate, and almost exact in calibrating a sense of biome whose radii are aware of catastrophe and attentive to the fulfillment of the shamanic mandate. It is a range that understands both limit and infinity. Aunor’s formal attitude is most assured here, then. Her late style has become an archive of attunements that can relate with either primordial kernel or final foliage. Earthen is the range. Because she is comfortable treading the reed-path with swine, we forget the contempt we have attached to the animal, and our zootropy recuperates.

We have been instructed well on how Aunor enacts a moment of conviction to tell a truth or to release oneself from victimry, but the method of her act in this film homes in on crisis: the tentativity that surrounds its valences, the articulations of a dilemma that nonetheless electrifies the spirit, and that static moment where the only charge that matters is the epiphanic self.

Is anyone else capable of shifting into tenses of terror perfect and progressive upon finding out the excess in one’s baggage is money, money, money?

The ensemble of women that accompanies this performance must be celebrated for providing Aunor with formidable foils to her character’s predicament. Josephina Estabillo, the termagant, is such a levity. Sue Prado, the renegade, is imperturbable. Mara Lopez, the lovelorn, is by turns melancholic and sanguine. Not every seasoned performer knows the difference.

Ang Kwento ni Mabuti reveals to us that there are still stars, and the stars are still, in Nora’s eyes. Superstars, they remain. And we must gaze, gaze, gaze.


Review: Pristine Narrative, Gripping Performance

The Narrow Road To Perdition and Redemption: The Story of Mabuti 

“Bilang tagapagtaguyod  ng realism sa pelikula, ang pangaral ay wala sa estetika ni de Guzman.”  
-- Bienvenido Lumbera reviewing Mes de Guzman’s Diablo

What Bienvenido Lumbera, a member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino and National Artist, is saying is that as a purveyor of a kind of cinematic realism, being didactic is not part of Mes de Guzman’s aesthetics. The film Diablo from last year won the Gawad Urian for Best Screenplay and established de Guzman as a major voice of Philippine cinema, indie or not.

And now, he is the strong and wonderful voice behind a film titled Ang Kwento ni Mabuti. The film cannot be described merely as a morality tale for that description would diminish the pungency of this film. That would make this work of de Guzman common. To read the story of Mabuti is to travel on the narrow road to sin and salvation without being Catholic or Christian. For that is not the only route for persons. The film does not tread on the path of any Biblical passages. What it has is a confrontation with nature, to cite one example, and what it offers is a reading of the rumbling or rains from the sky as having meaning more significant than, well, clouds and rains and hailstorm.

The film begins with Mabuti trudging on a hilly path, the mountains and sky and clouds witnesses to her walk. I say witnesses because that is how we were brought up to divine the divine from things bigger and mightier than ourselves. The mountains are arid and the sky is silent but we are free to interpret heavens and transcendence, or even the wrath of the divine coming from the surroundings.

This is the irony of the film: that we search for moral lessons and scary warnings from what have been pushed to the corner as the murmur of metaphysics. We have the physis here, the matter by which we create our notion of what is correct or appropriate. If there is something that rises above the physical, then it is the art of the filmmaker and that of its leading actor, Nora Aunor. This is enough. This is more than enough than all the moralizing put together by those who require moral lessons from any cinematic outing.

The role of Mabuti is ordinary. She is a woman content with life in an isolated village. Her world is inhabited by her grandchildren left there by a daughter who, it seems, falls in love easily. That emotion ends always with the daughter pregnant again and again.

With a different man each time. But we cannot judge this daughter because Mabuti, the mother, does not. Mabuti’s mother, the children’s great-grandmother, does the judging. But it is no more a moral commentary than a gripe for the difficulties of life. Mabuti understands her mother and, in fact, embraces her after discussion with all the care and tenderness of a loving daughter. This is unconditional love never presented before with such tremendous silence and grip.

It is, however, the absence of moral judgment from the perspective of the protagonist, Mabuti, that burdens us once more to contemplate what Catherine Wheatley calls the “ethic of image.” Reviewing the cinema of Michael Haneke, Wheatley talks of the “act of spectatorship as a morally charged act.”

Wheatley, in the same paper, tells us of the process of this act: “...the position of moral spectatorship that Haneke creates for the audience has its own rewards. For it teaches us freedom of consciousness and allows us a position where we neither impose our own experiences on the film, nor allow film to impose itself on us.”

Indeed, we are all spectators in the unfolding of the tale of Mabuti. Indeed, we are aware of the extraordinarily ordinary spectacle of a woman so poor that her only wealth is tied to an unmovable property: land—and that land is about to be confiscated.

De Guzman offers a concept of good and evil that is historical. The crisis of Mabuti is linked to something that exists outside but near the village of her birth. This is the contribution of the film: Mabuti’s trials are common, regular and real. We can meet them ourselves and grapple with them, given our own religion, although the director does not say that, or given our economic statuses, which the film does not underscore.

In the much-honored film Thy Womb, film readers spoke of cinema as ethnography. The literature of documentations, however, will remind us that ethnographic accounts are ahistorical, as if the story is always in that pristine state of narrative. Thus, the term “ethnographic present.” If that is the kind of filmmaking that de Guzman engages in, then he is not into the discourse of realism. But, as we say, he is realistic, the director who, according to Lumbera, props up realism.

Is this realism about moral choices? I do not offer any answer. The absence of an answer is itself an answer. The many answers are also allowed as answers. As with life, ambiguity is not exotic but given. There are no clear choices for if there are, the mountains will not stare at Mabuti, the skies will not give a distant rumble, and the rains will not bring ice to a tropical village.

The mountains are almost sacred at the beginning, not because they are but because our own belief systems have made them holy when contemplated. The hailstorm, however, that brings about the shower of ice is imagined by the children as a fitting ingredient for halo-halo. The mundane and the fantastic, the regular and the uncommon mix in a profusion of magical impressions.

In Diablo a mother who waits for her children to come and be with her look at the walls at night. But we are the spectator in that it is us who see the shadows. The forebodings are for us; the moral quandary is with us. This is the same feeling one gets when viewing Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti. Ours is a gift and the shackle of omniscience, a wonderful if not bothersome treat from a story that is as real as any contemporary depiction of reality.

In these problems about reality, we meet characters like the “Kapitan,” the barangay leader who hides the counting of jueteng bets at the back of his house. He is assisted by a young man who is startled by the routine. We meet along the way, for the road seems to be opening and closing always in Mabuti’s terrain, the two young men. One assists the other who gets bitten by dogs and snakes. Then there is the mother of Mabuti, a loving tyrant supported by tradition, and a brother whose long journeys are bound to become metaphors about fate rather than business trips.

Josephina Estabillo as Guyang, the great grandma, is a reassuring presence. She is about the wonder and wisdom of aging. Arnold Reyes drops the gestures and the facial twitches and disappears with each journey as his character blends with the practical horizon. Sue Prado, as always, is the master of the common appearances. One remembers her because her life is short. As with any event in other people’s lives. Outside of the actors are the characterizations created by de Guzman. I think of the military men preparing the bed for a poor peasant. In that image, one is burdened with the goodness of soldiers caught in the crossfire of violent stereotypes of the benign versus the malignant.

Still, we cannot talk of Mabuti, the character so simple and regular, without talking of Nora Aunor. It is because Nora Aunor is Nora Aunor that a piece of cinema about the grandeur of the everyday succeeds. I cannot think of any actor who can perform for us an exercise about how life is sumptuous and gripping in its familiarity. And, I cannot imagine any other actor who has reached such maturity than Nora Aunor as Mabuti. This is a different actor, smiling with all the candor of a common tao, grieving because there is a loss, no more and no less, derived of a moral compass because life as real is more complex than any reading of values.

Clutching a bag full of money the amount of which could save her family from poverty, Nora Aunor as Mabuti stops at her tracks. She pauses and looks up. That glance, that ceasing teases us to read signs on the aridity of the landscape. But there are no signs. There are no symbols. The absence of commentary makes us want to cry. Have we been abandoned by that we know as the Almighty? Are we to take care of ourselves? We wait for the light to shine upon this lone character but de Guzman is virulently realistic. The narrative moves on. Mabuti goes through the habit of life. The daily work, the absence of sound, the laxity of conversations—all this Nora Aunor as Mabuti distills into one astutely peaceful performance.

That night of the premiere, the presence of Gil Portes and Joel Lamangan was announced. This is an interesting footnote to Nora Aunor’s career. The two directors are poles apart in helping the actor craft a character. The sublime silence in the character of the nurse played by Aunor in Merika now stands out when remembered against the theatrically engaged delineation of the many characters of the films done by Lamangan with the thespian. Nora Aunor, it seems, has come full circle. She has become the high priestess of the difficultly prosaic, presiding over tales that warn and wonder and wail—if need be.

Cesar Hernando does the effective production design of the film. Mes de Guzman writes the screenplay and directs. The film was honored with the prizes for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay for de Guzman in the first CineFilipino Awards.

(Tito Genova Valiente is the chairperson of the country's most enduring group of film critics--Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP)--that has been handing out the annual Gawad Urian since 1977)


Review: Amazing Grace of Authenticity

By LYNDON MABURAOT, film blogger (Tablestretcher)
In Mes de Guzman’s Ang Kwento ni Mabuti, narrative progression is spare and monotony and nothingness are the point. Nothing happens in the first half of the film, and that is deliberate. The story to which everything clings to is skeletal and the follow-ups are far between, sidetracked by inactivity and lackadaisicalness: a letter arrives, threatening Mabuti’s household of an impending confiscation of their land for an unsettled tax payment overdue. Mabuti summons the help of the Barangay Captain, who in turn recommends a land officer from a nearby town who can assist her. On her way home from the town, an incident happens that leaves her with a bag full of money. For a strapped like her, what she will do with it? For a full-length film, the said narrative arc is so thin one may dismiss it as insubstantial. Or a mere excuse for de Guzman’s more pressing concern: an ethnographic roundup of a remote countryside, Sitio Kasinggan in Nueva Vizcaya, where stretches of greens, big mountains and high trees are a reflection of how far removed the place is from civilization. 
The inhabitants of the sitio are poor, relying on crops and homegrown livestock for survival; the kubos are far apart, the sick prefers faith healing than medicine. The sitio, like all barrios and barangays in the Philippines, is ruled by a Barangay Captain, and he, like most crooked political leaders, is housing a small-time gambling operation, with amassed coins, a revenue from it, taking forever to count. This time of the year, election is coming up and he is egging  on the sitio’s faith healer, Mabuti, to run. In here, transportation is difficult. The roads are narrow. The towns are far apart, taking more than five hours to get to the other town. Leftists hide in the thickness of the forest. And occasional gunfight with the military ensues. The film is so keen on mapping out a culture we might as well be living there. And that is what sets this film apart. The skeleton is basic but the meat and the muscles covering it are sufficiently bulky there is no way the whole package can’t be authentic. And this ethnographical astuteness is served its purpose aesthetically when, later on, Mabuti is temporarily displaced from the sitio. She goes to the provincial capital to process something and she suddenly becomes a stranger, the place she has been accustomed to now far from her. She has to contend with vaster new environment where people she meets are strangers, the houses bigger and closer against each other. When she has to settle for the deserted side of the street to sleep away the night, herself helpless and alone, we suddenly become aware of where she came from. There is no truer ethnographic sketch of Sitio Kasinggan than seeing it from afar, and in the dead of the night.
And for all its ultra-realism on the depiction of a culture, it doesn’t stay bounded by its matter-of-factness. The very first scene shows us with Mabuti clutching a bag, her eyes peeled in stupefaction, while the fogs and the clouds impossibly form and unravel and reshape before her.  This kind of providential intervention becomes propelling factor to the narrative every now and then. Sitio Kasinggan, by default, is still steeped in tradition where faith healing is yet a vital part of its way of life. Where a snake bite or a dog bite is cured by the power of white stone and mere application of saliva. How could that be when the rabies is not sucked out from the system? Science does not figure here, or logical scrutiny of what is transpiring. When Mabuti is confused whether to return the money or not, circumstances give her the answer. On her way to the Barangay Captain, where she plans to surrender the bag full of money, the weather suddenly changes, showing her signs, trapping her. Not entirely convinced, she goes to the military camp to coordinate about the return of the money, but the camp is, again, suddenly deserted. Some unknown forces are taking place! Humongous insects flock unexpectedly. A drizzle of snow comes one night.  A path blocked by landslide becomes rapidly and miraculously passable. That path is leading to Sta Clara where Mabuti must need to go. When Mabuti dillydallies to get Nelia’s daughter from Sta Clara as instructed, an impossible number of jeepneys crisscross before her, all of them flashing the Sta. Clara signboard, luring her rather forcibly to get in. The events here are not decided by human being alone. Something circumstantial helps things take form. The film, therefore, becomes allegorical in harnessing its points, giving its entirety an air of extraordinariness.
What is further admirable from the minimalist way de Guzman shoehorns his message is his surefooted dedication to create an atypical character at/as the center of all of these. Screenwriting books and workshops would always insist on an active protagonist, one who always finds ways to achieve his goal. In here, the heroine is the opposite, in a way, breaking the said rule. De Guzman’s heroines are of this kind. His lead character in Diablo, Nana Lusing, is an old woman living alone, abandoned by her children. Her days are spent on tuning in to an old radio and observing the time pass by. 
In Ang Kwento Ni Mabuti, de Guzman further complicates his heroine, by making her unreceptive and later on shaking her moral compass to check how she, with that passivity, will react. Everything about this film is an inspection of a character. For instance, Mabuti’s son and daughter give her character a weight, a baggage to carry on her shoulders. Both’s children, all four girls with one named Kate Winslet, they left with Mabuti to raise. And yet, Mabuti remains positive and uncomplaining. She tends to her granddaughters lightly and even goes playing with them sometimes. Her moral values are gleaned from how she deals with her daughter, Angge (Mara Lopez), whose three children are fathered by three different men, now all vanished from Angge’s life. Mabuti is never judgmental with Angge. Is she just too forgiving? Or is she just too naïve? This unconditional acceptance is further bolstered when Angge gets pregnant again for the fourth time and, again, from a different man. Her reaction to the said news is not the usual: no, we don’t hear a shouting marathon of rage and condemnation. Instead, she pulls her daughter closer, wraps the latter with willing arms, her hug warm and reassuring.
Mabuti’s mother, Guyang (Josephine Estabilo), is utilized to give her character’s outlook a counterpoint. Where Mabuti is lax and democratic (she lets the grandchildren be, playing all day), Guying is strict (obliging the great-granddaughers to help more in the household chores); where Mabuti is sunny, Guyang is cranky.
And every which way available, de Guzman keeps delineating Mabuti’s character. When one time Mabuti passes by Angge’s store unannounced and witnesses her daughter’s current man copulating with another woman, she is taken a back. But her surprise is just a natural spur-of-the-moment reaction. She does not tell her daughter about what she saw afterwards.  And this character signification peaks when de Guzman gives Mabuti a bagful of money to test her morality, character, passivity and the like.
Characterization is likewise employed as a narrative tool. Mabuti by nature has a ready smile. She grins when she is happy, when she interacts with the granddaughters, when she crosses with everyone in the street. A letter presenting her of a possible land problem does not wipe from her mouth’s corners that upward curve. Poverty does not either. Or even problems her son and daughter bring her. This is characterization physicalizing her mindset, her simplicity and her principles (or the absence of it). But when an opportunity (the big amount of money) is suddenly presented to her, she starts to reassess her circumstances and her being. And then the smile becomes scarce.
And playing this, Mabuti, is Nora Aunor. Just as when one thought Nora gave her all as barren wife in Thy Womb, Ang Kwento ni Mabuti comes on the heels, the actor sealing her return as a consummate performer. Gone are Nora’s tics of the nineties, her employment of unnecessary hand gestures, her accentuated delivery of lines. Nora’s appreciable restraint in Mabuti is matched by providing peculiarity to the character. Where the characterization requires an ever-smiling heroine, Nora heaps it, the easy grin, with touches of simper.  And the consistency of her moderated rendition of Mabuti is further authenticated by the absence of real highlight. What she shows here is surprising. With a tumultuous personal life hardening every corner of her being, she couldn’t be capable of portraying simplicity at her purest! It is akin to crossing to the opposite side of the pole to convince us she is rightly there, all along, feet firmly planted.  But she does! In here, she unlearned all those layers she acquired through the years, peeled off all shields, all protectors, until she is stripped to her barest. And what is left of her, the residue we got here in this film, is, sustained by a fully-realized character, a graceful performance, may be for the books, and unlike any other we’ve seen from her to date.

Review: Calm Complexity, Sublime Simplicity

Reality Check in 'Ang Kwento ni Mabuti'

That not much happens in Ang Kwento ni Mabuti is precisely its power. And while its premise is poverty as crisis and its context is the distance and removal that the poorer among us live with, not once did the film seem like poverty porn. Neither was it full of itself.

It would of course be easy to hate this film for not doing more, not being more, when it could've been less restrained. Yet, there is the fact that it didn't need to be more than what it was, because what this movie has to drive this story is what most other films don't have.

That is of course Nora Aunor.

The noise of calm
There isn't much to talk about given the context of Mabuti (Nora Aunor); her silence is borne of the fact that not much goes on in her life. She lives in Sitio Kasinggan in Nueva Vizcaya, with four young granddaughters under her care, all almost the same age, from a son and daughter who work in town hours away.

Mabuti and the four girls live with Mabuti's mother Guyang (Josephina Estabillo), who is always grouchy because she is exhausted by the state of things. Guyang is the perfect counterpoint to Mabuti's disposition, without the former being a stereotype of the impoverished either.

That is, Guyang is not one to complain about the way things are, as she is one to get angry about it. She cannot understand Mabuti's kind of parenting to Angge (Mara Lopez), who has three daughters without fathers, and Ompong (Arnold Reyes), who has left behind his daughter with Mabuti, too. Guyang is unhappy and discontented, and she takes it out on her four great-granddaughters who she insists must do more in the house, must work more, instead of playing all day. Guyang questions everything that goes on in the nuclear family of Mabuti. At some point she becomes a funny caricature, the voice of reason if not of conscience.

To say that Guyang is the noise to Mabuti's quiet is to miss a lot in this film. The noise after all is already in the kind of life that this family lives, where there is no better future in sight, and there is just another granddaughter on the way. Every day, Mabuti goes and makes sure that she can pump water from the nearby irrigation to their home. She gathers vegetables as they are available, and lives off being given fruit and produce in exchange for healing the members of the tiny community she is part of. She has a line to the barangay captain, who sees her no matter what she needs; who encourages her to run for political office, which seems absurd given the barangay she is part of. What we see of Sitio Kasinggan is miles and miles of mountains and fields, dirt roads and lone bahay kubos. Mabuti seems to walk forever. 

One might think Mabuti content if one considers that she doesn't complain. After all, she is able to provide food and shelter for the four girls she cares for and her mother, too. Every day, there is someone to heal from a snake or dog bite, and she receives produce in exchange for her healing. There is laughter here, and singing. There is a Mabuti as grandmother who works and is able to sustain the kids she is responsible for. Here is a woman who barely speaks, who is calm, even as poverty's noise is loud and clear.

The complexity as quiet
The status quo is disrupted, as expected, by need. Because within the world that Mabuti lives in, the present is enough, even as it gives little. A letter arrives, threatening to take over the land they live off; Guyang is threatened by it, while Mabuti takes control and says she will find a way.

We barely see how she does it of course. Instead what we see is Mabuti packing up, ready to go town even as it is not something she wants to do. Everything delays her trip: she gets off the jeep so she can heal another snake-bitten teenager, a military checkpoint looking for rebels forces her to stay the night at a military camp. The bus she's on gets a flat tire.

Mabuti meets Nelia (Sue Prado) who offers her food, and who sees how Mabuti handles disagreement: she talks to people and makes them feel better. She arrives in town and the local official she needs to talk to is on his day-off. Mabuti has traveled far, at least five hours on the bus, but she doesn't complain. Instead she sleeps on the street that night. The following morning we see her closing the door on the land management office; we do not know what has transpired. Mabuti doesn't speak throughout the trip back to Sitio Kasinggan, even when Nelia, also on the same bus, ignores her; even when Nelia, in distress, tells her to get her daughter in Santa Clara, whatever happens.

Then Nelia runs. One shot on the back kills her. The military insist she was part of the holdup in town the day before. Mabuti is left with a bag, filled with money that Nelia left behind. This then becomes a question of what one must do with the money, when no one knows it is with you, when you have a family in need the way Mabuti does. This becomes Mabuti's unraveling, because her moral compass – one that is unquestioned in the context of poverty she is part of – is suddenly being challenged by growing need and a lot of cash landing on her lap.

That all of this happens with quiet, as if nothing urgent or critical is happening at all, is a statement on the simplicity of the situation both in Mabuti's and our worlds. That is, we know what's right and wrong here, and we cheer on Mabuti to do the right thing. The greatness of this story is the fact that given what we know of Mabuti's life, we can also only be confused about what she must do.

The power in the simple
Mabuti is not a simpleton, but in her world, where words are barely spoken, it is easy to just be. There is want and need, but there is only so much one can do. She is not one to bargain for better, as she is one to try and fix things as much as her abilities allow. She wants to bring the money to the barangay captain, but takes the strange weather as a sign that she shouldn't; she goes to the military camp to talk to the captain about the money, but the camp is deserted. Mabuti waits for nothing and no one. She seems to always purposefully wait.

As she does heartily laugh, in that quiet way that we know the voiceless must. She speaks but doesn't talk or banter. She is nervous and sad, she is lost and confused, she is happy. And we only know this of Mabuti because she's got eyes that can pierce through your soul.

Which is to say that this is about Aunor, which almost goes without saying, and yet there is something here that she wasn't able to do in last year's Thy Womb. That is, she learned the language that everybody else in the film was speaking. In this sense Mabuti was more complete as a character than Shaleha; Mabuti was more real. Aunor as such isn't rendered quiet by the inability to speak in the same way, and Mabuti is allowed to actually be borne of the context that we see is hers in the film. She makes that universe work, and unravel, no matter that it is the tiniest, most removed, universe that many of us cannot fathom.

It is a universe of signs. And when Mabuti navigates and negotiates with those signs given her fears and joys, we are allowed to imagine life to be as simple, moral compass and all.

Yes, this film had technical problems, and I wish it took more care in rendering time and space as important aspects of storytelling. But most this film stands regardless, and that might be because of Aunor. Without her, it's entirely possible that Ang Kwento ni Mabuti wouldn't survive its own simplicity. Because not much happens in this story, but Aunor takes Mabuti's character and makes everything happen for her. 


Reviews: Double Delight

Nora Aunor is 'Mabuti's' Reason For Being

You don’t want to miss the CineFilipino entry, Ang Kwento ni Mabuti if only for Nora Aunor, whose peerless, award-worthy portrayal and magnetic presence give director Mes de Guzman’s visually and thematically compelling drama a spare but forceful elegance—and its reason for being!

The Superstar is by no means the movie’s only attraction. In fact, with Mabuti, De Guzman (Diablo, Ang Daan Patungong Kalimugtong) delivers his most accessible film to date—an affecting and more easily “relatable” morality tale built around its lead actress’ thespic tour de force. 

Aunor portrays Mabuti dela Cruz, a 58-year-old healer who lives in poverty-stricken Sitio Kasinggan in Nueva Vizcaya with her surly mother, Guyang (Josephina Estabillo), luckless son Ompong (Arnold Reyes), loveless daughter Angge (Mara Lopez), and her four fatherless granddaughters.

Simple pleasures
Life is hard, but that doesn’t stop the cash-strapped but cheerful grandmother from basking in the simple pleasures of barrio life—until a letter demanding payment for an overdue loan compels her to take the five-hour trip to the big city to ask for financial reprieve.

Mabuti’s life takes a fateful turn, however, when she meets friendly stranger, Nelia (Sue Prado), who ends up giving her more than just sweet delicacies to feast on (no spoilers here)—a heady mix of moral contradictions that Aunor juggles with subtlety and skillful relish—and a Solomonic dilemma that De Guzman presents in a deceptively simple but stirringly effective manner.

The gorgeously photographed production gets off to a slow start, and its “supernatural” flourishes are sometimes a little heavy-handed. But, De Guzman’s unsentimental handling of its allegorical and potentially melodramatic elements lends the film a gritty emotional heft that its intuitive lead actress mines incisively and judiciously—no emotion is manipulated and not a single tear shed is unearned!

Light moments
It’s refreshing to see the actress juggling her character’s pathos with the unforced humor she generates in the production’s light moments. What’s even more astounding is the fact that Aunor doesn’t require long and flashy lines to relay Mabuti’s carefully calibrated tale well—she can tell it just by using her expressive face and those fabled orbs to shuttle between contrasting emotions.

The role is a tough  row to hoe, even for an experienced thespian like Nora, who isn’t tasked to intone crowd-pleasing dialogue or “sell” overly dramatic sequences. Just the same, she delivers her Ilokano lines believably, as if she grew up speaking them. And, unlike some self-indulgent actors, she knows how to make it look effortless and heartfelt.

Ironically, it’s the movie’s other adult actors who occasionally appear rigid and mechanical when they’re faced with the formidable challenge of sharing the spotlight with her. It’s a risk you have to face when you’re acting with a gifted actress like Aunor—if you let your guard down, she’ll chew up the scenery and “eat” you alive!

An Excellent But Challenging Morality Tale
Nora Aunor’s new film, Mes de Guzman’s Ang Kwento Ni Mabuti is an excellent companion piece to her previous movie, Brillante Mendoza’s international award-winner Thy Womb.
Both are portraits of women in life-changing crises that test their tenacity and character. But while Thy Womb ultimately tugs at the heart, Ang Kwento ni Mabuti coalesces in the mind.
Which is to say that De Guzman’s CineFilipino entry is an even more challenging, demanding piece.
For one, it has an even more deliberate pace than the Mendoza opus. It’s also quieter and much less colorfully ethnographic.
Mabuti is also more of a character study. And it takes pains and considerable time painting a picture of Mabuti as this sunny, good-natured, cheerful, kind, helpful, hardworking, firm-footed, tenacious Everywoman who embodies the best in the Pinoy spirit.
She is a hilot in a remote village who gets thrown off her bearings when she discovers a big stash of cash inside her bag on the bus ride back to her village after a rare trip to the city.
The money is an unexpected gift, like manna from heaven, that couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
Mabuti and her family (mother and four grandchildren) are facing eviction from its small property over unpaid taxes. Additionally, Mabuti’s two grown children are having difficulty making sufficient strides on their own to support their children, much less guarantee a good future for them.
It’s the story of Job with a twist. Instead of losing everything, Mabuti is suddenly given the key to everything. But the question of whether it’s right and proper for her to use somebody else’s money that was entrusted to her for a different purpose eats at the morally upright Mabuti.
If all this sounds rather high-minded, it’s because it is. Mes de Guzman is that kind of filmmaker.
And his adherence to spare, naturalistic, life-like presentation (he wrote the screenplay as well) gives the film a certain chilliness that provides a very interesting contrast, and friction, to the story’s sun-kissed setting— the highlands of Nueva Vizcaya.
The result is an excellent film that’s very easy to admire but not as easy to embrace on a gut level.
As for La Aunor, she turns in another miracle of a performance. It’s perfectly calibrated athough more economical than her celebrated turn as Shaleha in Thy Womb, but no less startling.