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

Niño: Emerging and Disappearing Cultures Collide

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By Gigi Javier Alfonso

Director Loy Arcenas co-writes the story of Niño with Rody Vera who wrote the screenplay. They have proved to be a creative team together with Lee Briones-Meily and Jay Abello whose cinematography is masterful, Jerrold Tarog with his sensitive scoring and Danny Añonuevo with his meticulous editing. For a first-time director for film coming from theater, Arcenas has successfully hurdled certain odds: the oft-noticed overboard type of acting by theater performers whose large gestures are magnified and appear pretentious on the big screen, and common lack of proficiency in the film language. But in Niño, he has managed to fit into the filmmaker’s mode seamlessly and brilliantly.

The narrative starts in the house of the Lopez-Aranda clan with a young soprano Celia, who has yet to gain fame. Her brother Gaspar, an ex-congressman with an illustrious political career (until martial law which has put a hold on to his high-profile lifestyle), sits contently and plays the part of a very willing audience to his sister’s singing. Through time, their house has gone from a majestic villa to a lackluster old house, where the expensive wares are slowly being sold by Celia for the upkeep of the house. These siblings have supported each other for quite some time and have been together for a long time.

The exposition hops on to Celia’s children, Mombic and Merced. This is the second generation and has a bit more complexity. They are always at each other’s throats with overriding distrust. Mombic brought his son Antony to visit his grandmother. Revealed eventually is why Merced, his sister, has this strong coldness towards her brother. Repeatedly hounding his mother for financial assistance, Merced gets extremely frustrated as she does the budgeting and accounting for the running of the day-to-day maintenance of their home. Mombic has come to once again borrow money and will leave his son when he goes to Dubai. Added to this generation of the Lopez-Aranda is Raquel, the daughter of Gaspar. The narrative goes through a faster pace when Gaspar suffers a heart attack. Raquel hurriedly comes home with her son, Reinhardt who later reveals that he is gay. This completes the third generation with Antony and Reinhart in the scene.

Niño is a film about realizing that time changes lives and realities. We still see the struggle between existing ways of life borne out of tradition. These respected traditions, meant to be preserved like the roses, sampaguita, lily, and other various blooms in the garden of the grand house of the illustrious Lopez-Aranda family, are now a barren playground for the grandson Antony. These respected traditions are meant to be preserved: the tertulia, the songs and the glamour that defines a generation, “the sacred heritage of the family.”

Niño as a critique of society posits a dysfunctional past and present generation. The matriarch still celebrates the old and glamorous Eurocentric past, staying in this mode by being with her amigas and amigos—her comfort zone. She struggles to fight to preserve the past as seen when she shouts out loud and sings with anger and stubborn fury.

But the coming of change brought by the independent spirit and call of necessities imbedded in the rough, raw, and stark truths seemingly does not have any qualms to dislodge what has been built by those who had come before them. The house that Celia and Gaspar built is up for sale to the highest bidder being in the midst of the metro train route and booming high-rise condominiums. Does the film Niño tell us that this is for the better? Or should we look at it as a given…or are there questions unanswered for the future to unravel? The emerging cultures and the disappearing cultures as they collide bring forth new ways of doing things. We just hope that the people in the middle of the phenomenon have the mettle, the drive and the resolve to use these moments to better their—and the next generations’ lives… the generation of niño bonito Antony and the more adventurous, Reinhardt.

Reading the final scene, first, Reinhardt is shown leaving home with his knapsack, resolved to stay in Manila and not to go back to America. Second, we see the transformation of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon dangling from the tree in the garden as Antony plays. Third, there is Antony still cloaked with the Sto. Niño garb carrying his scepter. We still see the vestiges of the past generations to carry on the traditions into the future. But expect collisions of views and values as all generations carry with them numerous sectors with diverse beliefs and ways of doing things. May all generations see the value of tolerance and respect for diversity!

Something else that needs respect and admiration is the brilliant ensemble acting. Outstanding performances by Cuyugan as Celia armed with an expressive face with the little smiles, smirks, and glances of admiration and suspicion. A fantastic Art Acuña makes the character Mombic grow on me. That part could easily come off as a flat, stereotypical, one dimensional villain performance but he becomes instead the charming, seductive, manipulative Mombic. Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino is powerful and sharp with depth and true understanding of her part as the strong and stabilizing factor that is Merced. Raquel Villavicencio is simply a natural. Here she is attractive, intelligent and down to earth, Raquel… she does it and portrays it with exquisite ease and maturity. Tony Mabesa, Jhiz Deocareza, and Joaquin Valdez deliver very effective performances. Admirable performances should likewise be credited to the able handling of director Arcenas, who has intelligent control of the elements to create this memorable film.