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

Sabel: Sinner or saint?

By Butch Francisco

The name Sabel conjures images of innocence, simplicity and even naivete. In Regal Films’ Manila Film Festival entry Sabel, don’t let the simple title fool you. The lead character Sabel is more complex than the three personas of Joanne Woodward in Three Faces of Eve. As played by Judy Ann Santos, Sabel has so many facets: a good daughter to her father, a rebellious kid to her mother, a generous and helping hand to her father’s best friend, a kind and cheerful nun, a woman wearing a habit but enjoys good sex, a manipulative and scheming bitch to her would-be stepfather, a lascivious tart who pets in public, an inconsiderate friend, a boyfriend-grabber, a thoughtful lover, a good and caring mother, a lesbian and a murderer. Only Sally Field’s Sybil has more contrasting personalities.

Written by Ricardo Lee, the story of Sabel is simple but its structure is made complicated with all the flashbacks throughout the movie. To the credit of the director, Joel Lamangan, we don’t get lost in the storytelling and we get to follow the developments in the film.

The unraveling of each character manifested by Judy Ann’s Sabel, in fact, can be very engaging and the viewer can hardly tell what to expect next. There are loopholes. One concerns the character of Wendell Ramos who after serving time in prison, works as a carwash boy, but he gets to rent a well-furnished two-story apartment with a guest room in the first floor.

The film’s good points fortunately outweigh the lapses. Ordinarily I would have little patience trying to understand a character like Sabel—a woman who doesn’t seem to know what she wants in life, but affects other lives in the process. Still, Judy Ann Santos’ complex portrayal of Sabel redeems the otherwise unsympathetic nature of her character. Given the many facets of Sabel, it is a most challenging, difficult role, a great acting test for any performer and Judy Ann passes it oh so magnificently.

Sabel should be a turning point in her career (the way Burlesk Queen was to Vilma Santos in 1977). After this, she will no longer be regarded as a mere soap opera princess (though even that is good enough) but a competent and respectable actress.

Complementing Judy Ann’s excellent performance are Wendell Ramos as the ex-convict who rapes and hopelessly falls in love with her (this early, I can say he’s already assured of an acting nomination in next year’s awards race), Rio Locsin as the mother who can’t get along with her headstrong daughter, Iza Calzado as the writer Wendell eventually marries, Sunshine Dizon as the lesbian lover of Sabel, Jeffrey Hidalgo as Sabel’s ex-boyfriend, and even Jim Pebanco as the wayward priest (I just don’t know how the Catholic Church would react the way he blabbers about Sabel’s secrets—all revealed within the confines of the confessional box).

Sabel is also technically way above average and that alone will get the viewers interested in the film. But more than anything, this is a milestone in the career of Judy Ann Santos. When she is up there alongside Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos, film scholars and historians writing about Judy Ann’s career will always look back and refer to this movie with the simple title Sabel. –”

”Starbytes,” The Philippine Star