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

River of grace runs through 'Panaghoy'

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By Lito B. Zulueta

For wearing his heart on his sleeve, Cesar Montano has done an audacious work. “Panaghoy sa Suba” is perhaps the most accomplished film to be made by a Filipino actor-director in many years. But it is accomplished not because of the soundness of its filmmaking and the majesty of its vision. It is all that and more. It is accomplished because Montano shows a coherence of emotion and thought, a unity of feeling and action. It is a heartfelt work from an artist with a big heart.

This is a film that could only have been made by someone in love. How could one explain its setting and period: Bohol during the war? And how could one explain its courage in adopting four languages—Tagalog, Cebuano, English and Japanese? This is certainly a movie that doesn’t spare anything for the sake of authenticity. It is a movie with a mission.

That mission is particularly inspiring in a movie industry of tincan dreams and shortsighted visions. Montano has put his money where his mouth is. He is obviously a man in love with film and in love with his homeland and country. His is a testimony of love.

It’s also an enchanting romantic work if one considers its romantic setting—the beautiful river of Loboc—and its narrative revolving around Duroy (Montano) and Iset (Juliana Palermo). In the initial stages, in fact, Montano the director paints a loving portrait of Bohol, its picturesque vastness, its hardy people, its quaint but charming ways. The latter are particularly shown when Duroy serenades Iset, and the sequence seems to last longer than usual, at least longer than what one would expect during these days when movies seem calculated to explode and bombard the viewer every 15th second. But nothing explodes here, however extended the scenes. We just feel transported to a time when things took a little slower, a little more leisurely, if only that life doesn’t hurry; it throbs.

And life throbbing is what “Panaghoy” shows in loving detail. There’s the bantering and teasing in Duroy’s family. There’s the laid-back work in the palm oil factory, where Iset catches the eye of the American proprietor. And there’s Iset and Duroy stealing glances at each other amid everyday industry, exchanging looks of love that are as casual as they are meaningful.

It’s only a matter of time for all of this gentle and loving ordinariness to be unsettled and eventually destroyed. When war comes, it comes with a jolt, with the horror of innocence. We are taken on an astounding survey of the war and all its ravages: the incomprehension of the town idiot (Ronnie Lazaro), the travails of Duroy’s sister (Rebecca Lusterio), the dilemmas of the heart and of survival of Iset, the strivings toward mercy and humanitarianism of the Japanese conqueror (Jacky Woo), and the rage of Duroy for the injustice and the senselessness of it all.

The technical achievement is quite acute. For old-time movie lovers, there’s the shock of finding that Ely Cruz, a cinematographer of the classic “Maynila, sa Kuko ng Liwanag,” is behind the camera of “Panaghoy.” It’s a shock of recognition really since, like in “Maynila,” there are the adept scale shots in “Panaghoy,” the grainy, almost pointilist exactness, the moody lighting, and the striking close-ups. Montano has obviously found his Sven Nykvist, just as Lino Brocka found his in Conrado Balazar.

Renato de Leon’s editing is sure and controlled. The production design may have lapses (such as women without veils inside the church), but it works because it is able to paint the era in an efficient way, without overdoing or under-presenting it. The sound is likewise competent. And surprise of all surprises, the music is faithful to the era and to Bohol.

Through all of war’s fortunes and pitfalls is Loboc river, its waters calm and tranquil as ever, its byways reflecting the twisted meanderings of war and its warriors, but as sure as it empties into the sea, it leads to renewal and a chance for new beginnings, new life. “Panaghoy” may mean the wailing river, but it’s not a plaintive, mournful movie. It’s a quiet, celebratory film, and it is Montano’s achievement that he has infected war with his innate goodness and optimism. This movie doesn’t cry you a river. It washes over you, like all-generous waters.

Philippine Daily Inquirer