The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti: The Narrow Road to Perdition and Redemption

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By Tito Genova Valiente

“Bilang tagapagtaguyod ng realismo 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. The word “propaganda” crosses our sleeping mind.

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.

This review appeared under the author’s column, Reeling, which appears every Thursday on Business Mirror.