Re-describing Rosanna

The theme of Ligaya ang itawag mo sa akin, Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s controversial film, is an old familiar one – society’s refusal to support the marginalized person’s attempt at self-renewal.  Rosanna Roces, the equally controversial bold star of many trashy films, plays the role of Ligaya, a prostitute who seeks passage to the ordinary life of a married woman.

It is a situation shared by those whose misfortunes have been compounded by unrelenting stigmatization in our society: the exconvict, the divorced or separated woman, the homosexual, the former mental patient, and, indeed, the bold star.  Ligaya herself fails to make the transition.   The community tells her – once a prostitute, always a prostitute.

In banning her latest film, the MTRCB is also, in effect, telling Rosanna – once a bold star, always a bold star.  Not even the craftsmanship of a Carlos Siguion-Reyna can wash away the stain of malice impressed upon your body.   Your nudity and even your most poignant love scenes are permanently locked in the vocabulary of prurient interest.  Go back to Seiko, and do Patikim ng Pinya, part 2.

But in the eyes of sensitive viewers who have attended previews of Ligaya, Rosanna Roces has indeed re-invented herself.  Her portrayal of the prostitute who seeks redemption has the kind of texture that only someone who has had to actually deal with society’s bigotry can possibly create.   She has the knowing sneer of one who has seen through so much moral posturing.  Yet her eyes project the innocent hopefulness of one who has had to live with so much pain.

Only 24 years old, Rosanna is married and has 2 children.  But throughout her stay in Seiko Films, she was bound by a contract to conceal from the public the existence of her family.  That contract was terminated after she was forced to admit in a showbiz talkshow that she had children.

She is the child of a German father she has never met, and a Filipino mother she has never known.  She grew up in Malabon as Jennifer Adriano, the adopted child of a couple she cares for very much.  She was first  launched into the world of entertainment as Anna Maceda, a name that was politically resonant, but meant nothing in showbiz. Thereafter she was re-baptized Rosanna Roces, and in this persona, she did Machete 2, Nang Mamulat si Eba, Patikim ng Pinya and a couple of other films whose titillating senselessness now hounds her bid to be treated as a serious actress.  

In a recent Public Life episode where she was my guest, I apologized to her for talking about films that I had not seen.  “I’m sorry I have seen you only in your latest film,” I confessed.  “Mabuti na lang,” she said laughing.  She thinks of Ligaya as a watershed in her life, both as an actress and as a person.  The irony is not lost on her as she contemplates the meaning of the MTRCB’s action.  They do not seem to want her, she says,  to graduate from her role as queen of titillating films.

“She is a very intelligent actress,” observes film and TV director Marilou Diaz-Abaya, who advised me to borrow videos of Rosanna’s earlier films.  “There you will see,” she said, “how she transformed even the most demeaning roles.  She brought to them a kind of lightness and humor, which effectively blunts their sexual vulgarity.”

I caught a glimpse of that famous Osang wit, sharpness and candor in the interview I did with her.  She hides nothing about herself, she speaks her mind out, and apologizes to no one for what she has done with her life.  In a sense, it is not she who needs re-invention, for she is in every way so well put together.  It is rather our society and our moral prejudices that beg re-examination.

There is very little else you can do about the past, says the philosopher Richard Rorty, except to re-describe it.  To re-describe it in such a way as to reclaim it from those who, by the power of their dominant vocabularies, have defined it for us.  This is not an easy task, for it entails not only a getting away from fatalistic language, but a critique of our insidious own moral vocabulary.

Carlitos Siguion-Reyna does not take this path in Ligaya.  In that regard, the film sometimes lapses into conventional moralizing.  But what Carlitos does beautifully is make a case for Ligaya’s quest for redemption by re-describing the persons who deploy the community’s dominant moral vocabulary  — the town mayor, the parish priest, the pious mother-in-law, and the young man himself who offers to marry her.  He shows up their hypocrisy, and the emptiness of their own morality.  Ligaya emerges as the only honest person in the film.

By a strange twist, we have had an unintended replay of this same theme in the recent public confrontations between the censors and the censored.  The arguments of the censors, couched in the operational language of “pumping”, “breast exposure”, “sodomitic acts”, etc., are clear enough.  It is a well-crafted film, they admit, but it violates the norms prescribed by the law and the guidelines they follow.  Delete the objectionable scenes or change the law, they say, but you cannot have both.

There is perhaps nothing much we can do about censorship, except re-describe the censors.  I wish Brocka or Bernal were alive to do a film about censors.


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