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

Mater Dolorosa: Fighting Back Tears

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By Butch Francisco

Every Good Friday—particularly in tradition-rich parishes—religious devotees and even mere spectators are treated to a pageantry of carroza-borne images of saints who were with Christ on His way to Calvary. At the start of the procession is always the statue of St. Peter with his rooster, followed by St. Veronica holding a piece of cloth with the imprint of Christ’s face on it, then St. Mary Magdalene with her bottle of perfume and St. John the Evangelist. Some big parishes also carry the images of lesser known saints like Sts. Cleofe and Salome (cousins who went to clean the tomb of Jesus). In Agoo, La Union, also joining the procession is a tableau of the Last Supper—with life-sized statues of the 12 apostles, dining table and all.

In the Good Friday procession of the Immaculate Conception parish in Pasig is a carroza bearing the forlorn statue of Judas Iscariot lit only by a single light bulb. Hardly anyone accompanies this image (who would want to keep company the traitor who sold Christ for 13 pieces of silver?). Toward the end of the procession, everyone turns pious as soon as the Santo Entierro (the Dead Christ) is in sight. Sometimes the image of the Pieta (as interpreted by Michelangelo) follows, but the very last spot—the finale—is always reserved for the sole statue of the Sorrowful Mother or, in Latin, Mater Dolorosa. She may be garbed in the most resplendent of robes either in purple or black, but your attention will still be focused on her face—a picture of inconsolable grief. On her chest is an exposed heart with daggers representing her seven sorrows that are all centered on the life of her Son, Jesus Christ (seeing Him carry the Cross, holding His lifeless body after the Crucifixion, among other pains related to being a loving mother).

The face of the Mater Dolorosa is so expressive that it has inspired a lot of artists to translate this holy figure on canvas. Probably the most famous of these works is that by Titian (done in the mid-1550s) and hangs today at the Museo del Prado. The title Mater Dolorosa given to the Blessed Mother evokes so much meaning that it served as the title of a French film about a neglected wife, who gets into an affair with the brother of her husband and out of guilt contemplates suicide. The plotline obviously has nothing to do with the blessed life of the Virgin Mary.

In Philippine cinema, Rosa Mia is the quintessential mater dolorosa with another Rosa (Aguirre) providing another dolorous icon as suffering matriarch in early Filipino movies.

For the Cinema One Originals 2012 edition, director Adolf Alix, Jr. and writer Jerry Gracio apparently couldn’t resist borrowing the Mater Dolorosa title for their joint creative film venture that won honors here and abroad. Why, even the production design (also by Alix) screams “Mater Dolorosa”—the almost life-size image of the Sorrowful Mother standing in the living room of the house occupied by the main characters in the story.

Yes, there is a suffering (but fighting) mother figure that holds everyone together, but Mater Dolorosa also presents the sorrows plaguing the metropolis. At the heart of the story is Lourdes Lagrimas, played by Gina Alajar, who marries a gang lord Zacarias (Phillip Salvador in a guest role) in spite of her disapproval of his activities. The opening scene recalls a moment from the classic Brocka film Kapit sa Patalim (Bayan Ko), which climaxes with the very same Urian-winning couple (Gina and Phillip) besieged by killers. Tears—or the resolve to fight it back—do not end here, for as time passes. Lourdes spends her days fighting back tears but they cont9inue to hold it like their surname (lagrimas is tears in Spanish).

Lourdes has taken over everything the slain husband has left behind including the gambling operations which she has assigned to her two sons: Joseph (Cogie Domingo) gets the chop-chop car business, while Elijah or Eli (Carlo Aquino) is in charge of gambling (sakla and jueteng). Like some corporate—or cosa nostra—board chairman, Lourdes oversees the activities from above and trouble-shoots whenever there is a kink that needs to be ironed out (like greasing the cops and buying out the testimony of a complainant). A daughter who is a law enforcer Fatima (Alessandra de Rossi) serves as their mole from within the police headquarters and whatever information she gathers comes handy when there is a raid to be conducted on their operations.

Only Benjie (Dominic Roco), a medical student and the youngest of the brood, remains pure and untouched, like Al Pacino’s “civilian” Michael Corleone in The Godfather. He is the joy of the family—sweet, caring and thoughtful—the apple of granny’s eyes. Grandma is Anita Linda, the mother of Zacarias. She frowns on the activities of her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren but has no other choice but to keep a blind eye. She urges them to move away with her so the family can sstart anew and turn over a new leaf, but they are not yet ready and so she merely lives with it. The elderly woman is on such good terms with her son’s family that she treats Lourdes like her own daughter. Love and respect are reciprocated. The grandchildren even fight for her affection.

The loving nature of Anita Linda’s character makes viewers empathize with Lourdes and her children even more in spite of their ways—human beings with good faults and bad. Even son Zacarias, the older Mrs. Lagrimas insists, had a kind heart but somehow went wayward to her extreme disappointment.

Lourdes herself is a complex character—quick to poke a gun even at her own errant children, but just as fast to dip into her pocket to help anyone in need of financial assistance. Even Zacarias’ former mistress, Malou (Rosanna Roces) can run to her anytime to bail out the bastard sired by her late husband with this woman. As a mother, Lourdes plays fair among her kids and nixes favoritism. She even showers them with maternal care by cooking for them and making sure they are properly nourished.

And why does she carry on with this dangerous lifestyle that puts her and the lives of her children at risk? It’s because she believes that these gambling operations they run, including those at funeral wakes, help the poor, particularly those who do not have the means to give deceased loved ones decent burials. And these are not just lame justification for her wrongdoings. She believes that it is the correct thing to do—wherever such a windfall may come from, Robin Hood incarnate. At the same time, we want to weep over these lost souls, the kind that populates real-life Philippine politics.

The reputation is not without its unsavoury consequences among Lourdes’ children. Joseph is dumped by Virgie (Garie Concepcion) yielding to her father’s wish because he has discovered the truth about his family. Fatima is ignored at a New Year’s Eve dinner by the sisters of her boyfriend Raymond (Alwyn Uytingco), who is also a cop because they are aware of the kind of family she has. But apart from ostracism, the disturbing truth that faces the family is that not all their money can buy peace of mind.

The mayor (Menggie Cobarubias), determined to clean up all illegal activities in his turf, orders the police to conduct raids on gambling dens. But his son Charlie (Jason Abalos) as it turns out is into the trade as well, a business rival of Lourdes. For a while, for something like two years, Charlie did not touch her business for she had been supporting him when he ran for barangay captain—all the way to the City Hall. The Pinoy utang na loob all over again (the usual wrong sense of gratitude).

Mater Dolorosa is not the first film to tackle the social and political ills of urban life in the Philippines, the late Lino Brocka having touched on similar issues. Kubrador, which won the Urian best picture award in 2006, is about jueteng. So does Oros (in the running this year) that exposes wakes as front for gambling. This Adolf Alix film, like Kubrador and Oros all shows how the authorities look the other way in the face of illegal operations and rampant corruption because they benefit from these activities.

Thankfully, unlike most other socially relevant films, Mater Dolorosa does not preach and let the drama and action push the message. The narrative is so riveting the viewer looks forward to the next scene.

The performances of the cast are engaging. Initially, one may find Gina Alajar’s acting to be a rehash of her strong women roles in the past, but here she shows steelier and tougher nerve—a gun-totter at that—but compassionate qualities that propel the movie to its accelerating climax. In each of her not-too-lengthy scenes, Alessandra de Rossi shines as woman torn between duty to the police force and her family.

This is Alix’s most fast-paced but measured film. The director has been covering disparate movie genres with varying degrees of success, and Mater Dolorosa with his tight grip on the different aspects of filmmaking and its burning social and political themes, is his most effective yet. What was just a prolific, serious indie talent is now ready to be called a film master.