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

'Milan' and 'Sabel' make a credible case for Urian best picture

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By Gigi Javier-Alfonso

The Filipino expatriate life in Italy gets a scenic, glossy but realistic treatment in “Milan,” which is arguably the most successful Filipino movie of 2004, scoring very well both in the box office and in critical approbation.

Directed by Olivia Lamasan and written by Raymond Lee, “Milan” is an engaging, totally affecting survey of the Filipino migrant worker experience in Europe. Filipinos will find this tale of Lino (Piolo Pascual) looking for his missing wife (Iza Calsado) in Italy, and meeting there a street-smart, self-driven but emotionally scarred domestic helper, Jenny (Claudine Barretto), quite familiar and recognizable. It is the tale of tens of thousands of other Filipinos who risk safety and family togetherness to eke out a living in uncertain climates abroad. The predictable postcard-pretty romance that happens between the two merely provides an intriguing sheen that perhaps subdues the harsher aspects of the diaspora. But the result is nothing bland or evasive. “Milan” is a compelling romance.

Part of the realism of “Milan” owes to the careful characterization and portrayal of Filipino migrant workers’ lives in Europe. When Lino finds in the city slicker Jenny a guide to the devious alleys of Milan and expatriate living, he discovers the milieu in which Filipino workers’ dreams and aspirations thrive or fail: in the large apartment she shares with other workers, he finds intertwining lives that somehow shame his rather narrow preoccupation with searching for his wife—a couple carrying on an affair without the knowledge of their spouses back home and agonizing what to do with her unwanted pregnancy, a tomboy toughening herself for more challenges ahead, and a former low-class entertainer who pines for her old days of glory as a cheap entertainer.

Then there’s Jenny. Her hard exterior and self-driven ways mask her hurts and frustrations. Perhaps reveling in her relative success in Italy, she finds it in the hapless Lino a plaything with which to measure her sheer accomplishment of having survived in a cutthroat world. But the more she raises the roof of her self-importance, the more she finds herself returning to the old scenes of her defeats and losses. In the hands of Barretto, the character is mesmerizing.

But the more engaging character of course is Lino, the pathetic husband who doesn’t exactly find his missing wife, as much ending up in a more problematic romance with Jenny. The character is very credible—resistant at first to humiliate himself by doing menial work in Italy, then coming to his own as he establishes himself with that peculiar Filipino temper of bluff and arrogance. As he forgets what he has come for Italy for in the first place, we find him going deeper into emotional turmoil. In the end, he discovers that it is himself that has been lost.

It is a difficult role that could have been trivialized or made even more pathetic by a lesser actor, but in the hands of Piolo Pascual, it becomes a totally sincere creation. Pascual has always delivered sensitive portrayals, but this is his best performance so far because he was able to carve it with the right balance of sheer physicality and raw emotion, really his best assets as an actor.

Lamasan and Lee temper the romantic thrust with documentary flair, showing footages of interviews with Filipino workers in Italy. Even Lino gets subsumed in the documentary sequences, a melding of truth and fiction. In the end, “Milan” is totally true and disarming. The romance is merely the canvass on which to paint a resonant picture of the Filipino’s banishment from his homeland.