MOVIE REVIEW: Ang Larawan (2017)

Athanasius of Alexandria was a bishop in early Christianity. Among others, he is known for his efforts to combat the teachings of Arianism, a popular school of Christian thought which was gaining ground as its teachings appealed to the son of the late Emperor Constantine.

Despite this endorsement by the Emperor’s son, Athanasius held his ground and continued to attack what he believed was a dangerous ideology that compromised sacred doctrine. He was relentlessly pursued by his enemies and survived five exiles and six attempts against his life.

For his firm resolve against popular sentiment, he was given a moniker which also served as his epitaph:

Athanasius against the world

Directed by Loy Arcenas, Ang Larawan is the story of two sisters left alone in their old home to take care of their aging father and the painting he made for them. It is a family drama wrapped in the mediums of musical film and period film, and also serves as a political statement on the relationship of art and the world it lives in. Larawan boasts of an impressive list of cast members that, despite the film’s limitations, gives strong, memorable performances that will be remembered long after the current edition of the Metro Manila Film Festival has gone.

That Larawan came from a pedigree of well-known cultural figures cannot be denied. It is an adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s first play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. Portrait was first staged by Lamberto Avellana (starring his wife Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana as Candida), who also directed its first film adaptation in 1965 (also starring Daisy). It has also been translated into Filipino by other writers including Bienvenido Lumbrera. Rolando Tinio wrote another Filipino adaptation for the musical Ang Larawan (with music by Ryan Cayabyab), which he also directed, as part of the conditions Nick Joaquin imposed on the producers when they approached him for the project). All of them were appointed to the Order of National Artists of the Philippines except for Cayabyab (who is often touted as a potential candidate to the Order).

As in Portrait, Larawan revolves around the story of Candida Marasigan (Joanna Ampil, in her first film), her sister Paula Marasigan (Rachel Alejandro) and the painting that their father Don Lorenzo made for them. Most of the story happens within the stately, if decaying, Marasigan household during the months leading up to the Second World War, with the eponymous painting looming over them as a dark specter. The painting has become a cause celebre as it attracted the attention of neighbors, passersby and poseurs who often visited the house more for the painting than its residents. Among their visitors, one October, is an old family friend, Bitoy Camacho (Sandino Martin), a newspaper reporter who was also meaning to write a story about the painting.

Bitoy discovers that the sisters struggle to make ends meet: their only means of subsistence are the handouts begrudgingly given to them by their elder siblings Manolo (Noni Buencamino) and Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco), and the rent income from their sole tenant Tony Javier (Paulo Avelino), a lecherous pianist working at a bodabil. The Marasigan sisters were often pressured by would-be buyers to part with their painting, with tempting prices that could secure their future. Yet, for ideological and personal reasons, they refused to sell their painting (or the house), and not even their father’s close friend Senator Perico (Robert Arevalo) could convince them.

Rachel Alejandro (Paula) and Joanna Ampil (Candida) in ANG LARAWAN.

Part of the sisters’ reluctance to part with the painting and the house is their inability to reconcile themselves and their idealism with the world. They hang on to their cherished belief, to their Ideal, that no amount of money can compensate for the lasting pleasure that Art can give them, and that no other people in the world can understand them but fellow artists. And as members of this exclusive club, they see themselves as the vanguards, the standard-bearers, of the old traditions that they want to live on. We against the world. Contra mundum. It is this stubborn belief that moves them to hang on to their father’s last legacy, the Retrato del artista como Filipino, as an icon of this credo. Don Perico, a former poet who they thought has sold out, tempers this with one of the most memorable lines in the film: Hindi simple ang buhay katulad ng sining (Life is not as simple as art). The pursuit of the arts is edifying, but in order for the arts to survive it must also (learn how to) thrive in—and despite—the world. And with patience, both can coexist: one need not look beyond Larawan’s original librettist Rolando Tinio (who has worked on both film and theater) and composer Ryan Cayabyab (who was able to write and publish both pop songs and personal artistic compositions).

And yet, throughout Larawan, we never see the controversial portrait in its entirety, only a few hints here and there. (In contrast, the picture is never seen even in the play; it is placed in the figurative Fourth Wall, which lets the audience look into each character’s expressions closely.) The painting is stark and bleak: a double self-portrait of Don Lorenzo as Aeneas and his father Anchises, and behind them is the destruction of Troy. That image alone, deliberately selected by Joaquin in Portrait, captures the central issues that dominate Candida and Paula’s thoughts: the downfall of a gilded age; a man’s pride that became his fall from grace, and the burden that was his legacy to his children. It is these same issues that Candida and Paula struggle with, a great conflict that they have learned to accept in time.

The film is without its flaws, often gravitating towards long monologues and discourses that hold the story back from moving forward, yet feel incomplete at times. This is not the filmmakers’ fault, as this can be attributed to the nature of their source material, which reads more like a closet drama, if not a novel or essay. When Joaquin completed his draft, his sister, who was a theater actress, thought Portrait was “undramatizable”; the opening monologue alone by Bitoy runs nearly two and a half pages single-spaced. Lamberto Avellana sought Joaquin’s permission to compress Portrait for its theatrical run, as did Rolando Tinio when he adapted it into Ang Larawan the stage musical. (Joaquin permitted both revisions.) The current film is itself a shortened version of the stage musical, which runs for over three hours.

Inevitably, adaptations lose the details that made Portrait an engaging read, and to their credit the filmmakers have tried, sincerely, to preserve Joaquin’s vision as much as they can. The attention to detail is stunning, from the intricate furniture in the Marasigan ancestral home down to the personal accessories of the La Naval devotees. (Even the image of the La Naval was borrowed from the Sto. Domingo Church.) The music captures the spirit of the Roaring Forties in the throes of the Second World War, as well as mines the emotions of Candida and Paula (whose singing were, as envisioned by Tinio, intended to be the most beautiful among all singing parts).

More importantly, the actors and actresses of Larawan deliver solid acting that by itself is worth the price of the admission ticket. Joanna Ampil, in her first film, has delivered the strongest performance in Larawan. Her performance at the end of Act 1 (the blackout scene) alone is heart-rending, a cry that stays with you for the rest of the movie. Rachel Alejandro, reprising the same role she played during Larawan’s theatrical run in the 90s, is sweet but vulnerable. The rest of the cast delivers just as well that even the cameo appearances during Act 3 are memorable, too. Whether the MMFF Jury will feel the same and honor these performances remains to be seen (as of this writing) but, awards or no awards, Larawan’s ensemble need no further validation than the merits of their own art.

For all its shortcomings, Larawan is a film made with a loving dedication to its writer’s vision: to remember and to sing, that is my vocation. Weeks before the 2017 MMFF started, Larawan is the only film in my must-see list; I hope you will give it space for yours, too.

Postscript: At the 2017 Metro Manila Film Festival Gabi ng Parangal (December 27, 2017), “Ang Larawan” garnered 6 awards:

  • Best in Production Design
  • Best Musical Score (for Ryan Cayabyab)
  • Gatpuno Antonio J. Villegas Cultural Award
  • Posthumous Special Jury Prize for Nick Joaquin
  • Best Actress (for Joanna Ampil)
  • and Best Picture