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

The Arrival: Unvarnished and understated

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By Mike Rapatan

AMONG last year’s heady batch of independent films, Erik Matti’s “The Arrival” sticks out like a sore thumb. While other indie films in 2009 predictably focused their lens on abject conditions of economic displacement and hardship (e.g., “Baseco Bakal Boys” by Ralston Jover, “Himpapawid” by Raymond Red, and “Lola” by Brillante Dante Mendoza), human rights abuse (“Engkwentro” by Pepe Diokno and “Kinatay” by Brillante Dante Mendoza), the circuitous government bureaucracy (“Last Supper No. 3” by Veronica Velasco), and political warlordism (“Hospital Boat” by Arnel Mardoquio), “The Arrival” turns its gaze away from the heavy social realism of many indie films. Matti himself also takes a sharp and refreshing detour (hopefully, not just for now) from his commercial directorial style in past mainstream work like “Scorpio Nights 2” (1999), “Ekis” (1999), and “Prosti” (2002) and succeeds in presenting a love story indie style.

The film is about Leo (Dwight Gaston), a single diligent company bookkeeper, who one day decides to take a leave from his humdrum routine office work and travel from Manila to Murcia, Negros Occidental to literally find his dream girl. Every now and then, Leo in his sleep sees a sultry woman in a flowing summer dress walking to him in slow motion and about to kiss him. In Murcia, he fails to see his imagined lady love but he meets someone else, Melanie (Marilou Kho), a single mother who works in the town’s municipal office. In a chance encounter while waiting for a ride, Leo hears her voice and is instantly smitten by her charming smile. Leo finds a way to be close to her by working as a cook in the carinderia where Melanie eats. Leo introduces himself to Melanie. Leo and Melanie eventually date and their relationship blossoms. But instead of heading towards the proverbial happy ending, the relationship falters and its conclusion at the gate of Melanie’s house in line with the film’s independent sensibility is done in a more moving and satisfying way.

On the surface, the film appears to be a romantic comedy sans the usual shrill slapstick or farce that mainstream counterparts often show. But behind the stolen glances, quiet pining and occasional wisecracks from Leo’s buddies, namely Dick (Dennis Ascalon) and Arnel (Milton Dionson), Matti’s screenplay subtly exposes the theme of bravely living one’s dream. Through the lives of different characters, Matti peels away in a slow and sympathetic manner their struggles to honor and pursue their ideals or accept the painful truth of their illusions.

For example, Leo’s tenement neighbor snidely remarks how the married life seems like a feast at the start but over time becomes as ordinary as a can of sardines. Leo’s barber (Jess Evardone) narrates his initial passion to be a musician but due to his wife’s demands to get a regular paying job, ends up in the haircut business. Ochoy (Richard Sayson Jr.), Dick’s son, tells Leo of his plans upon his high school graduation to get out of the house and take his college studies in nearby Bacolod City and later on reside in Manila.

On the other hand, Melanie shares to Leo the rude awakening she had about living in Manila, how she was overwhelmed by its pace and why she decided to return to a simple and peaceful life in Murcia.

In Leo’s case, Matti traces Leo’s journey from fantasy to reality in highly visual terms with first, an engrossing cinematography (by Lyle Sacris Hermann, Claravall Joel de Guzman and Noel Lumibao) and second, a deft production design (by Jed Sicanco and Michael Espanyo). Matti also employs a soulful and insightful music soundtrack composed by Francis de Veyra to unravel Leo’s growth.

At the beginning of the film, Matti presents Leo staring like an automaton into the camera and sitting at his desk while framed in a tight and compressed two-dimensional space with a grid of sales graphs in the background to illustrate his self-imposed imprisonment in a dry and flat existence. In contrast to this, his dreams of his imagined lady love and later on of Melanie are composed with a long depth of field to suggest mobility and freedom. With these two spaces, Matti sets up a dialectic and the film moves from one space to another.

Interestingly enough, the film spaces merge in the middle of the film where the dream space of Melanie’s house becomes a harrowing and suffocating place for Leo. Towards the end of the film, Leo runs to Melanie’s house and grapples with the fantasy that her residence represents. At the close of the film, Leo sees the dream house again but this time the first dream girl walks away and the shot goes out of focus intimating Leo’s freedom from the very dream that inspired him to leave.

The dynamic opposition and fusion of these spaces shape the flow of the film and the progression of the other production elements. As Leo gains the courage to leave his work and fulfill his plans, the film gradually shifts from a monochromatic drab look to full and warm color starting with the time he arrives in Murcia.

The background of the imposing grid in Leo’s office which represents Leo’s compartmentalized life transmutes in another scene in Leo’s apartment to a wall of pictures which signifies the thoughts of departure and companionship percolating in his mind. The dominance of confining rectangular shapes in the hallways and corridors of Leo’s office and apartment building in urban Manila gives way to the open and wide fields of rural Murcia. In another scene, the isolated fish in the aquarium in Leo’s apartment is counterpointed in a later scene by a high angle shot showing Leo and his friends seem like a school of fish blissfully floating in a river as they laugh and swim in the buff.

Aside from these thoughtful production design details, Matti uses music to reveal Leo’s mercurial moods. De Veyra’s ruminating music and eloquent lyrics from various writers are smoothly woven into the narrative and its rhythms and tones epitomize Leo’s maturity and self-acceptance.

As Leo, Dwight Gaston effectively underplays his character’s angst, restlessness and succeeding catharsis. His sullen and puffy face in the early part of the film richly conveys his recognition of his personal turmoil and makes us understand his sudden decision to leave for Murcia. Gaston’s arrival at Melanie’s house near the end is likewise restrained. The heartbreak he projects through his eyes is devoid of hysteria or sentimentalism yet is full of palpable pathos.

As his buddies Dick and Arnel, Dennis Ascalon and Milton Dionson respectively provide the expected comic relief and function like a Greek chorus commenting on Leo’s situation or mental state. Their code switches from Ilonggo to Filipino and back can sometimes be distracting. The actors’ regional banter has its own special flavor and doing most or the entire Murcia episode in Ilonggo would have enhanced the film’s verisimilitude.

Leo’s reality may not be as staggering or confounding as the dilemmas faced by other characters in many issue-driven indie films. But like many indie films, Matti’s “The Arrival” examines its characters with a sense of sobriety and honesty. Matti’s film rejects the manic rantings and nostril-flaring highlights that one often has to endure in commercial films.

Instead, Matti this time chooses to serve the truth of human pain in an unvarnished and understated way. For doing this, Matti like his character Leo has arrived at the gates of independent filmmaking.