Thursday, August 18, 2011

MODERN LIFE (Raymond Depardon, 2008)

Moving without being sentimental, intimately probing without being intrusive, elegiac without being downcast, Raymond Depardon’s Modern Life is a bittersweet documentary about the twilight of farming in the south-central region of Cevennes in France. Marking the inevitability of change, it documents the dwindling number of farmers and the emptying of farming villages. Many things are hastening the exit of this way of life: the low pension for farmers, the high land taxes, the poor regard by the younger generations for farming. Farming is no picnic, as the film’s earnest subjects will attest. As ill-advised dilettantes find out.

Modern Life represents the final piece in a trilogy called Country Profiles. Here Depardon takes to the roads of Cevennes on a car, and goes from one village to another, as one season unfolds to the next. The roads seem to hint of idyllic spaces, but the lure proves to be spectral. As Depardon’s voice marks the time and place, his accustomed presence notes the toll of many years, the passing of some of the farmers, how the villages are diminishing into ghostly hamlets. We get impressions of what goes on in the farms, the milking of cows, the grazing of sheep, but Depardon is more interested in the dynamics of relationships, the interiors of his chosen farmers.  

Many of Depardon’s subjects are elderly men and women, and it is easy to see that some of their ideas are stubbornly out of date. It is an old culture that speaks a different language. All but disdainfully, Marcel Privat, an 80 year old man, for instance, resents his enterprising niece-in-law, Cecille, for her alleged lack of respect and her attempts to wrest control of the ancestral farm. A casualty of this old world is Daniel Jean Roy who must bear the brunt among six siblings of running the family farm, although he is quietly vocal about his displeasure with it. There is a moment here where Depardon tries to poke and probe the reservoirs of resentment, but dredges up, instead, silent but dignified despair.

Depardon’s methods mix pure observation and dialogue to capture the rhythms of country life. Sometimes he just allows the cameras to run, capturing without words the reticence of his subjects, their hard and leathery faces. Here he achieves a kind of painterly portrait, his subject worn yet all but defiant of a changing world. It often happens that his subject is hard of hearing and he must repeat himself almost with a shout. Sometimes he hovers near the frame, sometimes we can see him partake of coffee and biscuits at the edges, while he asks the questions. There are also instances when he deliberately tells us, through voice-over narration, that he is playing off subjects against each other as though to create contrasts or even drama. This almost informal way of documentary reminds us of the films of Jean Rouch, but Depardon is less ethnographic, less obtrusively experimental.

Modern Life is a finely pitched elegy that sees out a way of life, while around it a world speeds onward, transformed. The hamlets are all but empty, the inhabitants now gone away for better prospects, and an easier way of life. As for those who cling on, instead of bitterness, however, we hear the shimmering and pulsing of silence. This is precisely the way of life they are inured to. Nature and hardscrabble life have instilled in them the virtue of stoicism. As one farmer makes plain, however, farming…”is not just a job, it takes passion!” Passion is what modern life is missing, a world that is so unduly privileged, insulated, facile. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

BISPERAS (Jeffrey Jeturian, 2011)

The scenario is the night before Christmas, in a parish like any other. Gathered to observe the religious ritual of panunuluyan, however, the parishioners are not without disparate distractions. Discernible are all sorts of subtle body language – lusftul glances, shifty eyes, listless faces – that betray oblivious attendance. Minds and souls are elsewhere. Among the gathered flock is the Aguinaldo family, a family that seems for the most part devotedly observant. But appearances deceive.

When the Aguinaldo family comes home to a burglarized dwelling, a Pandora’s box is suddenly sprang open. Discovering what valuables are missing, suspicions and recriminations start to creep into speech. When important land titles are unaccounted for, mother and one of her daughters suspect not the burglars but one among them, the father -- a lay minister but an inveterate gambler. When the son is questioned by investigators, he reveals the disappearance of an envelope full of money entrusted to him. There seems to be sibling animosity too – between the feckless son and the ever-questioning daughter. Another daughter, a balikbayan with young daughter in tow, is also made to account for her lack of familial duty, how the green-card-holder never fulfilled her vow to become the family’s provider.

In its claustrorphboic mise-en-scene, Bisperas draws on a distinctly Bunuelian conceit: the burglarized home littered with damaged belongings and contentious relationships is like the tense and gutted upper-class home in The Exterminating Angel. No escape, no exit. We are trapped as helplessly as the characters, forced to be confronted by familiar characters and plausible circumstances. Tact, in time, gives way to bared fangs. Everyone goes at each other’s throat.

Jeturian's subjects – Roman Catholics and middle class types – are quintessentially Bunuelian, too. Not one without the other. False pieties – attributable to both socio-sectarian denominations – are unmasked. Practiced rituals are exposed for what they are – empty, hollow gestures that condemn and mark the guilty as socio-religious ciphers. Jeturian draws on tendencies we already know: the Filipino penchance for tense and surcharged confrontations. Even so, there is a level of equanimity that attends sentiment. For all its emotional bloodletting, Bisperas does not feel overtaxing or cringe-worthy.

Bisperas, indeed, goes straight for our complacencies, our holy of holies. Christmas deconstructed, as it were. Jeturian continues to question social pretensions, what we hold with reverence, those who walk among us with sanctimony. But while Tuhog satirized the lack of ethics of filmmakers, Bisperas has a broader scope that will earn him adversaries. Gamely, Jeturian proves up to the task. Through modest aesthetics, a stripped-down setting and shadowy photography, he has tackled his monolithic themes head-on, with a film idiom that may no longer be novel but remains potently bracing.

The epilogue is as intriguing as it seems proper, something that, in a roundabout way, cements the themes of Bisperas: Jeturian makes us wonder how the other half lives. On Christmas day, we get a glimpse of them attending mass in their Sunday best, smiling their avuncular smiles, giving away money with the largesse of those they robbed from. Those they mimic. Those they want to be like.

Monday, August 1, 2011

CUCHERA (Joseph Israel Laban, 2011)

For good or bad, social problems are cinematic: they contain, almost without fail, built-in narratives, inherent drama and characters, to propel entire films. We as a filmmaking nation know this better than anybody else. For a good part of the last 40 years, the material has been grist for our cinematic mill. Since Lino Brocka and company made it our bread and butter in the 1970s, an entire cinema continues to be built on it.

At this year’s Cinemalaya, the social problem was back with a vengeance: the image of the smoldering garbage dump became the unofficial motif of the festival and the participating films. Several films look unflinchingly at it: in Adolf Alix's Isda, it’s the dehumanizing backdrop to a magical realist story. Even a film of a different focus like Ang Babae sa Septic Tank lingers over the garbage dump with satirical obsession.

Another film truly rife with a social ill is Joseph Isarel Laban’s Cuchera, a work shedding light on the dark phenomenon of drug mules. The premise promises a winner, but this film drops it. One can’t help second-guessing, and everything fingers a filmmaker that is not yet equal to his tricky material. 
If there’s one point of judicious filmmaking here, director Laban latches on to a plotline pregnant with possibilities, the story of a middle-aged prostitute who must make quick money to pay for a much-needed medical treatment. Her quick-buck but high-risk scheme is to lead a team of drug couriers into China. The frightful centerpiece of the film is how the drug mules are prepped for the job.  
Even in the short telling, it sounds like a compelling story. The wrongly calculated gung-ho approach, however, is ill-advised. The final product smacks of crudity. The glaring flaw is not so much its transgressive imagery. Rather, it’s the lack of vision to handle and elevate the often graphic and scatological content. Perhaps it is a contradiction in terms to demand that the transgressive be couched in artistry and be elevated from rawness. But there seems a flagrant intent to shock and scandalize here with little of its own perspective and thought going into it.
The failure of imagination goes beyond the faulty treatment of the tricky material; it manifests itself in the thoughtless appropriation of other films. Cuchera slavishly borrows the look and feel of such films as Halaw and Kinatay and it’s hard to escape the blatancy of this dishonest practice. These films are invoked with little innovation here. It’s hard to tell if Laban is lazy and impaired by a dearth of his own ideas, or this early making cinematic salutes.

The unsettling sensation of butchery in Kinatay is recreated here to the same unsettling effect; you know it when you see it. But Cuchera’s more wholesale pilferage is from Halaw. In Laban’s film, the narrative structure of Halaw looks intact and embalmed: the illegal crossing into Malaysia is mirrored by the illegal journey into China. Instead of illegal migrants, the contraband here are drugs. Then there are the mindless reconstructions of points of character and plot that clearly come from Halaw. There is the deflowering of the virgin. The mutinous elements of the expedition. The abortive fate of this journey. For good measure, the presence of Maria Isabel Lopez in both films, both as a prostitute, ensures Cuchera's channeling of last year’s film.
In other spheres of arts, this would have had an odious name. The borrowing goes past seven consecutive notes, as it were. There are ways to turn the image of excrement into gold. There are ways of finessing material than ramming it up our orifice. Laban's film never quite attains it. For now, Cuchera has all the appeal of a train wreck. Fortunately, this film is the exception in an otherwise worthwhile harvest at this year’s Cinemalaya.