Faded glory crumbles from the walls of the Villa Los Reyes Magos, the ancestral dwelling of the Lopez-Aranda family. This house used to be grand, laments one of the remaining members of this once-proud family in a resigned and regretful tone. And there is every reason for regret. From having born witness and played host to some moments and figures of historic importance, the house teeters on its last legs. The fate of its occupants seems inextricably linked with the fate of the very house.
Gaspar stands at the head: a deus otiosus, feeling the ravages of old age and attendant infirmities. Bedridden and in constant need of care, he is nursed with devotion by his younger sister Celia. These two elderly characters once represented the zenith and pride of this aristocratic clan: Gaspar was once a putative kingmaker and congressman whose associations and alliances were a who’s who in Philippine politics. Celia, on the other hand, used to be a famous and preeminent opera singer and now has to teach voice lessons as well as sell her silverware in order to augment the drying coffers of the house.
It is with their children that dissolution is most pronounced. Celia’s daughter Merced is the unforgiving supervisor of the house, who has taken on boarders, but has made lovers out of them. Her resentment is evident against the manipulations of her brother Mombic, a prodigal son of sorts who is just as shamelessly impelled by self-interest. The start of the film coincides with the arrival of Mombic and his young son, Antony, with intentions to borrow money for a job prospect in distant Dubai and leave his young son behind.
Complications come to a head when Gaspar suffers a potentially fatal stroke. His dissolute daughter Raquel comes home from the States ostensibly to put his affairs in order. As Gaspar's condition worsens, she thinks about disposing of the house, threatening to leave the occupants homeless. Incestuous secrets are laid bare with her arrival. Reinhardt, her son by a third husband, whom she has brought along, has secrets of his own. Young Antony seems like the last, innocent counterpoint in the proceedings. Enthralled by wondrous stories about the child Christ, he gladly assumes the vestments of the miraculous figure, and begins to answer to the name Nino, a presence who listens in on the secrets of the house.
Arcenas’ Nino depicts the decline of an aristocratic family with great flair. Neither like Ozu’s films on the theme of family dissolution, nor Bela Tarr’s own brooding take, Almanac of Fall, Nino occupies a middle ground: Equal parts intrigue and grace. Thorough research has gone into certain aspects of the screenplay, adding authenticity to its portrait of a faded time. The dialogue benefits from the bygone textures of Spanish colloquialisms.
Where great care further shows itself is in the evocation of a defunct Philippine opera. Philippine opera has gone into progressive decay since its golden age in the 1970s and 1980s. Then there is Fides Cuyugan-Asensio. No other opera singer could have conceivably taken her place as Celia. (Sylvia La Torre may be too old for the part now.) Her roles as devoted sister and compassionate mother are wonderfully counterpointed with little touches of aristocratic mannerisms. The arias she sings afford a soothing balm so that Gaspar keeps requesting them like bedtime stories. But Ms. Cuyugan shares the vocal limelight with other luminaries from Philippine opera. Their gathering at Gaspar’s bedside to sing a tertulia is honest and dignified nostalgia.
There are no tears as they sing their pieces. They had their shining moments in another time and the best way to go out is with head held up high. We often share the same fate. Permanence may not even be for gods. Death and loss and dissolution are the only constants. Then like all creation we begin again.