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

'Sabel' debunks institutions

By Gigi Javier-Alfonso

Sabel is a bold and brave film. It is a work that helps gnaw on our existing value systems. It talks about the many ways of life that have been stifled because of society’s system that does not respond to the needs of the marginalized. Unfortunately in our country, too many are marginalized.Sensibilities may be offended and values are questioned in the new Ricky Lee material that is directed by Joel Lamangan. Sabel is Regal Entertainment’s 2004 Manila Film Festival offering with Judy Ann Santos as its star. There are many questions posted by this film--from issues about a priest’s celibacy vows, the right to sexual preference, intentions of women becoming nuns, the justice system’s weaknesses… on to land-grabbing issues by the powerful and the marginalization of our tribes. On the whole it deals with the rationale why law-abiding people feel that they have to move and even commit violence to defend their dignity.

Word went around the movie circuit, when the Sabel script was finished that the Sabel character was the plum role for a young actress and may be a strong vehicle for a best actress award for whoever got the role. Talent managers heard of the complex and challenging role of Sabel and heard that director Joel Lamangan had a lot of input in doing the story. This was the role that talent managers want for their stars. The film’s producer Roselle Monteverde-Teo was flooded with requests and exciting offers in exchange for their star to appear as Sabel.The Sabel narrative starts with Sabel played by Judy Ann Santos, walking perkily, among the prisoners as she does her social work as a nun who gives emphasis to charity missions. She is optimistic and exudes positive energies. Sabel is a strong female character, who gives advice to prison ; she is both complex and sympathetic.As she is dealing with a particular prisoner, played by Wendell Ramos, who was sentenced to several years in prison but his case was simply a case of mistaken identity. She goes through a traumatic experience that changes her personality and her life completely. She is sexually abused by the very inmate that she is closely helping. This is not an expected episode in her life so finally she leaves her vocation. The character that Wendell plays is guilt-ridden and decides to pursue Sabel because he realizes that he is actually in love with her. He then is released from prison. Finally after much waiting and pursuing he finally gets to see her. When she is seen on screen once again, we see a very different Sabel. She is not in a nun’s garb anymore and is wearing a hugging blouse and fitting jeans. She has definitely abandoned the life of a religious person. Sabel eventually falls into a relationship with the man who has violated her.After some time together, Sabel finally abandons him with no explanation whatsoever. She is next seen with the Ibaloi tribe where she is living with her son and a partner who happens to be a doctor and a woman, played by Sunshine Dizon. They are living with the tribe as a married couple. They have been accepted very well as a couple by the community.Joel as director is highly commendable. To be able to make each and every actor on the set perform credibly is a directorial feat. The editing is also brilliant. To be able to follow this complex story and make sense of it makes editing such a crucial element. Ricky Lee’s material I appreciate. Some may say that it is saying too much and not necessarily taking up in-depth any one issue. But I would like to reiterate that to me the material’s point is precisely saying that we have to have this critical look at all the institutions that we think are too sacred to question. That alone is such a big statement and this film makes this issue quite clear. Some will even say that it puts the lesbian in a bad light… but it can be argued that the characters are quite sympathetic and certainly are not painted as villains. In fact homosexuality is treated with respect and triumph.Judy Ann Santos is superior in her performance in this brave new film. Sunshine Dizon is effective though I thought it looked a little like stereotyping that women in such relationships look like men. Sunshine however handles the role with subtlety even if she is asked to look like a man. Wendell Ramos is outstanding as the inmate who falls in love with Sabel. His guilt, his frustration and his love is clearly and masterfully conveyed.Sabel is a must-see film.

“Sights and Sound,” Philippine Daily Tribune