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

Dukit: Carving God in the Image of a Sinner

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By Nicanor G. Tiongson

In the Western cinema, filmmakers who have tried to create portraits of iconic visual artists in the narrative film have faced one and the same challenge : How does one depict in a feature film the process of creation, so essential to the understanding of an artist’s works, without ending up with a cold documentary or putting the audience to sleep? According to critic Jeff Hanson, some directors have solved this “problem “ by ignoring altogether the artist’s creative process and focusing instead on some unknown or sensationalistic aspect of the artist’s life, like the tumultuous relationship between Van Gogh and his brother in Vincent and Theo or the many dalliances of Picasso in Surviving Picasso. On the other hand, the more imaginative directors have gone beyond factual reality to weave deconstructive fables that offer precious insights into the artist, his works, and his times, as Derek Jarman did in Caravaggio and Akira Kurosawa in the Van Gogh episode of Dreams.

In the Filipino cinema, a few visual artists have been the focus of documentaries like Nick Deocampo’s Edades, but hardly anyone in recent memory has dared to take on an artist, and a living one at that, as subject for a narrative film. Therefore there is reason to welcome Armando Lao’s Dukit (Carved in Wood) as a pioneer in this narrative genre, and even more reason to rejoice because Dukit succeeds in portraying both the fictional persona of Willy Layug, his sculptural works, and their personal and social milieu through a narrative film that is innovative, insightful, and inspiring. Dukit belongs to Lao’s category of the “Found Story” (one that comes from a given locale, in this case Betis, Pampanga) but it deviates from his real-time mode which transpires in one day and ventures into the “dramatic mode” which unfolds over the span of many months or years.

The storyline seems simple enough, commonplace even. Waldo, the alter ego of the living artist Wilfredo Tadeo Layug, grows up in the 1960s, the eldest and only boy among four children of a Betis couple. Dirt poor, the family lives in a shack and survives on a kangkong diet from day to day. But as if poverty were not curse enough, Waldo’s handsome father suddenly leaves the family for another woman, with whom he raises another family. In despair, Waldo’s mother dies a few years after, leaving Waldo in charge of his three younger sisters. Waldo drops out of school and works so that his siblings can attend school. In the 1980s he marries his childhood crush, Bebeng, who now has to live in a cramped backroom with Waldo and his sisters. After Bebeng gives birth to a son, she threatens to leave Waldo if he cannot give his family a better life. Waldo triples his efforts to earn more from his carving commissions and eventually puts up his own Betis Galleria with a host of workers under him.

Now recognized and prosperous, Waldo continues to accept orders, his latest work-in-progress being an Ecce Homo, an upright figure of Christ being condemned by Pilate, commissioned by a nearby parish. Meanwhile, Waldo gives a birthday party, to which Bebeng on her own initiative invites Waldo’s father, his former mistress (now wife) Lucing, and their son. Some of Waldo’s siblings refuse to meet the father, but Waldo welcomes him and even accepts the guitar his father brings as a present and peace-offering. Days after, Waldo works on the Ecce Homo, stopping only once when he picks up his father from the guitar shop where the old man works, to show him the lands and fishponds Waldo had now acquired. In a drinking session that night, father and son get drunk and feelings flow freely. The father confesses that he danced the curadal (the moros y cristianos dance held during the procession of Santiago Matamoros, patron saint of Betis) every year to pray for the well-being and success of his first family. In turn, Waldo confesses that he also performed the curaldal every year -- so that his father would return to his first family. As Holy Week approaches, Waldo works feverishly to complete the sculpture, carving in the final details and finally painting in the expression on its face. The night before the image is delivered, Bebeng, while turning out the lights in the studio, comes upon the newly finished statue. Tears of joy well up in her eyes as she looks at the face of the Christ – which is that of Waldo’s prodigal father.

But if the story is simple, the storytelling is anything but. Akin to Fellini’s 8 1/2 which is also about artistic creation, Dukit structures its realities so that the past (from the 1960s when Waldo was a boy and the 1980s when he was a young man) constantly and effortlessly interweaves with the present (2013), showing these decades and years as inseparable, not only because the present is the product of the past but more importantly because the past will continue to shape/haunt/enslave the present if it is allowed to do so. Incursions into the past are triggered off by an object, like the guitar given by Waldo’s father, which ushers in remembrances of the father teaching the boy Waldo how to play the instrument, how to fish, how to use a slingshot, how to fly a kite; by the lyrics of a song, like “How can you keep the tears inside” which stops Waldo’s singing as memories of his mother’s burial overwhelm him; and by lines in the dialogue, like the sister’s tearful narration about the mother’s pain after she is abandoned by the husband, which cuts to close-ups of the letters written by the mistress to her husband which the wife collected and kept under her bed.

On the other hand, the past flashes forward to the present for ironic comment. The scene in the 1960s where the boy Waldo flirts with the girl Bebeng in church and the boy promises that when they grow up Waldo would marry Bebeng is followed right after by the scene in the 1980s where Waldo brings his new bride to live in the abandoned and dirty backroom. Similarly, the scene from the 1980s where Bebeng threatens to leave Waldo if kangkong is all he can feed his family is followed right after by a scene in 2013 showing Waldo’s acceptance of an Outstanding Artist award from the Holy Angel University and his speech right after. It must be noted that the story telling, for all its relentless moving back and forth between past and present, delivers a clear, coherent, and effective narrative, mainly because of meticulous and sensitive editing.

And as the narrative shuttles between past and present to paint the portrait of Waldo as a person, it simultaneously conjures before our eyes the story of how this Pampango became an artist. Here the art works are presented not as in an album or catalogue but as fruits of the tree of the artist’s agony in adversity. This is intimated in one particular sequence of scenes and images. The night scene when the father leaves his wife and family eating at the dulang and simply vanishes into the night without ever looking back, is immediately followed by a montage of exquisitely carved faces of three Mater Dolorosas with glass tears in Waldo’s talyer, and then by rain pouring like a torrent of tears on the rough-hewn image of the Christ that stands, still imprisoned in the wood.

And as anguish feeds the artist’s soul, so necessity compels him to create. With his mother’s sickness and eventual death, Waldo must carry the burden of supporting his three siblings, and later, also his wife and child. Would Waldo have worked so tirelessly to get commissions if he had a father to lean on? On the other hand, with five mouths to feed, did Waldo have any choice but to throw himself body and soul into his art to become the best that he could be because the best would be the most coveted and financially rewarded? It was sheer need that tapped the wellsprings of dolours and despair in him so that he could produce sculptures of the sublime.

And whence come such works? In a reversal of roles, it is not God here that creates man, as the priest preaches in Sunday mass. Rather it is man who gives form to the divine or what he believes to be divine. In the case of the Ecce Homo, Waldo creates the figure of a Christ with the face of his prodigal father because Christ allowed himself to be condemned and crucified so that he could take on the sins of mankind. In imposing his father’s face on Christ’s, Waldo symbolizes both the Nazarene’s acceptance of another cross (the weight of his father’s sins) and his willingness to be crucified for those sins. In the figure of the Ecce Homo, sinner and savior are fused to become the symbol of forgiveness, and therefore, the icon of divinity.

And it is precisely this concept of forgiveness that elevates this cinematic treatise on artistic creation to a parable of human nobility. Viewed as a whole, the film replays the history of salvation, moving from the commission of the original sin (the father’s abandonment of his family) to the destruction wrought by the sin (the sickness and death of the mother, the economic deprivation of the childen) to the remission of the sin through Waldo’s forgiveness of his father’s intemperance. Unlike his siblings, Waldo is able to forgive because he realizes and acknowledges that his father genuinely loved him before, but that such love, being human, is limited by self-interest, fear, shame, and his father’s inability to take on family responsibility. In understanding the reality of that love and its severe limitations, Waldo is able to go beyond the bitterness, to heal the wounds inflicted by his father’s sins, and even to accept his father, warts and all.

And in forgiving his prodigal father, Waldo releases the sinner from his guilt and makes him whole again. As the priest in church keeps repeating,”love restores, reconciles, forgives, cleanses.” In the film, the process of gradual release is symbolized by the act of carving the Ecce Homo. As Waldo chisels away at the inert piece of dry wood, he is actually liberating the image that has been trapped in wood for years. That process of carving the image of Christ is therefore coterminous with the process of unfettering his father from guilt and of restoring, making whole once again the father that he had long ago smashed to smithereens in his heart of hearts. And the wonder of it is that as he carves his father into wholeness, he also unshackles himself from the negativities of pride and anger. In a symbolic montage at the end of the film, Waldo looks at the image of Christ/prodigal father from afar, and as church bells ring, a quick montage of Waldo as a boy in the 1960s, as a young man in the 1980s, and as the successful artist today flashes on screen, intimating that with the completion of the statue and the absolution of the father, Waldo’s many selves, fragmented by hate and heartaches, are finally released from their burdens and can now coalesce into a single person, whole, peaceful, and noble. In the film, it is not only the father that is restored to wholeness but together with him the son that sets him free.

In the last scene, the statue of the Ecce Homo, wrapped in plastic bubbles, rides in the morning sun on the back of a truck to the parish that has commissioned it for the Holy Week procession. As the embodiment of the tribulations and triumphs of Waldo and his father, the statue has now been sacralised into an icon of forgiveness – a true and authentic santo. Art is passion. Art is compassion. Art is redemption.