Marilou’s “Milagros”

At the end of the premiere screening of Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s latest film at the UP Film Center recently, some viewers were ecstatic while others were quiet and respectful.  Those who liked it confessed that they could not immediately explain why they liked it.  Those who didn’t were disappointed over the film’s unclear point of view.  Many had come because it was the opening number of the 8th International Women’s Film Festival.

“Milagros” is different from the movies that many fans of Marilou have come to associate with and expect from her.  For those who have looked upon her as the country’s foremost feminist director, this latest film was a disappointing way to mark the start of National Women’s Month.

By coincidence, her famous trilogy of “women’s films” – “Brutal”, “Moral”, and “Karnal” were shown in the same theater just two weeks before, as part of a homage to Ricky Lee, who wrote the scripts. These films formed a kind of feminist trilogy because they dealt precisely with themes like sexual violence against women and the unrelenting stigmatization of those who deviated from traditional gender roles.  “Milagros” is none of these.

Marilou’s trilogy was completed in the early 80’s, when the vocabulary of women’s rights was just beginning to be part of the sensibility of the Filipino viewing public.  Today they may have become icons of feminist sensibility in film; but when they were first shown, these films did not receive the kind of attention we now lavish on them.

For many years after she made these films, Marilou stopped directing movies.  She could not bring herself to work within the existing social organization of film-making in the country, which she thought demanded an extreme sacrifice of her integrity as an artist.  That was how film’s loss became television’s gain.   She agreed to direct “Public Forum” once a week for television.

The rest of the time, she just painted and read, and – as she would joke – let her husband Manolo support her.  She also took up scubadiving, as a way of sublimating her unspent energy.  In all these, she was obsessively perfectionist.  She took me down to her garden under the sea in Anilao a couple of times, hoping to entice me – as she did the late Ishmael Bernal —  to look at the world below.  I never graduated from the introductory dives, but she moved from level to level until she could call herself a dive master.

But it was obvious to anyone who knew her that film was her real world.  There were offers for her to return, but for some reason or other, she kept declining.  She was bursting with new ideas and new perspectives.  She traveled extensively to find out what was being done by new unknown film-makers in other parts of the world.

Yet when she went back to doing films after a long hiatus, she found herself helplessly bound to the same grammar of film-making to which she had been accustomed.  Her last 2 films before “Milagros” – “Ipaglaban Mo, The Movie” and “May Nagmamahal” – showed a confident director who had mastered the technique of her craft.  They were good films, but they exuded none of the boldness and adventurism of the director of the early “women’s films”, of someone who was testing a new vocabulary.

“Milagros” fulfills that function for Marilou. “I made it out of despair,” she said.  I think what she meant to say is that after being a good servant of multiple expectations, it was now time for her to confess what she had become.  It is an act of emancipation.

Her vehicle for this is Rolando Tinio’s original screenplay, explicitly written for her to direct.  Rolando won a Palanca award for this work, but for many years it remained that – a script waiting to become a movie.  The late Bernal, Marilou’s spiritual mentor, had read the script and had told her she was too young to make this film; that she should wait until she was 50.

“Milagros” is the story of a young woman (Sharmaine Arnaiz) who who worked, or probably was brought up, as an a-go-go dancer in a cheap beerhouse somewhere in Marikina.  Her mother (Elizabeth Oropesa) is the common-law wife of Bebot, the owner of the joint.  Her biological father, Cirilo, whom she hasn’t seen for years, dies after a long illness. Mother and daughter return to the old town only to find that  Cirilo had left behind another family and a huge debt.  Milagros or Lagring surprisingly offers to pay this debt by working as a maid for the family, who owned the small farm that her father tilled,  and to whom he owed money.

That family in Liliw consists of an ailing father (Dante Rivero) who runs a tricycle business, and his 3 sons: Junie (Joel Torre), who runs a photo studio in town, Bennet (Raymond Bagatsing), a cargo truck driver, and Ramonito (Nonie Buencamino), a blind mechanic.  The lives of these 4 men are profoundly affected by the lovely Milagros. That is predictable enough.  But from there on, the film subverts every typification that the average viewer might deploy to make sense of situations, characters, and relationships like these.

Marilou says she made “Milagros” primarily for herself, while remaining conscious of the implicit contract that a director has with her viewers – the responsibility to be intelligible.   That contract however does not include the responsibility to supply a single narrative to the viewer.  This is a film in which the viewer must negotiate her own meanings with the film itself.  It is not an easy film to watch.  I enjoyed it immensely, but I think I have not fully grasped it.  The next time I watch it again, I will remember not to ask what the director is trying to say.    This is the only way to appreciate this film.


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