Movie-making and the millennium

The dawn of a new millennium may be, for some people, just a day like any other.  But for the rest of us who are captives of time, the day must signify something so vital as to make its slow breaking out of the shadows of the previous night a wonder worth watching.

Except for the cultists and the paranoid who expect something more apocalyptic to unfold on this rare morning, the day promises to be not very different from all the days we have known.  Its significance derives wholly from the meanings we bring to it.  And in a world overrun by popular culture, it is understandably to the master creators of dreams and inventors of images, the movie-makers, that people would turn for the symbolism of the millennium.

Hollywood, we are told, has turned in a bountiful harvest of films revolving around the Second Coming of Christ.  This may come as a surprise to those who associate millenarianism with the apocalyptic hopes of the dispossessed and the victimized populations of the world.  What need would middle-class and prosperous America have for omens of spiritual transformation?

The American writer Harold Bloom proposes an answer:  “Pollsters estimate that there are about 10 million premillennialists among us, that is, people who expect Jesus to return, in his resurrected body, before he then inaugurates a thousand-year kingdom on earth, over which he will rule.   Yet the premillennialists are only a small fraction of believers; rather more than 100 million American adults expect a Second Coming of Jesus, even if they do not necessarily believe that he will found the Kingdom of God in this world.”

This however has nothing to do with the religious beliefs of 17th century colonial America, Bloom says.  “A radical alteration of American religion commenced with the start of the 19th century… Enormous frontier revivals surged on into the cities, and premillennialism accompanied the revivals.”

These thoughts from Harold Bloom’s deeply personal book “Omens of Millennium” came to me as I sat through a preview of Marilou DiazAbaya’s newest film, “Muro-ami”.  I kept wondering if Marilou had read Bloom, and if she had consciously modeled her Maestro Pescador, played by Cesar Montano, after Melville’s (Moby-Dick) Captain Ahab. Bloom calls Moby-Dick “the most apocalyptic of major American novels.”

The term “muro-ami” refers to an infamous method of fishing that scandalized the whole world many years ago because of its wanton destruction of corals and predatory use of child labor.  An issue of the National Geographic magazine featured stunning photographs of young swimmers equipped only with home-made goggles pounding the sea-floor of corals with rocks in order to herd the fish toward the nets.  These static images have now leapt out of the magazine’s pages to become the magnificent underwater setting for GMA Films’ millennial offering.  The underwater photography is pathbreaking: in this film, Marilou Abaya shares the splendor of the sea that has been her refuge since she took up diving more than a decade ago.   In scenes never before seen in Philippine movies, she details its many moods, its generous beauty and its dark dangers.

But this film is not about “muro-ami”, and, in this regard, its title could be its biggest burden.  Viewers expecting to find a film ethnography of the social organization and culture of this fishing practice may come away disappointed.  Like many of Marilou’s films, “Muro-ami” is pure allegory.  The sea is the world into which we mortals with the spark of the divine have been thrown.  In the words of Bloom: “Cast out, at once from God and from our true selves, or sparks, we live and die our sense of having been thrown, daily.  Let us grant that there is an exhilarating dynamism in our condition, but this does not prevail, and it is not the norm of our existence.  Trauma is far closer to our days and nights: fears of lovelessness, deprivation, madness, and the anticipation of our deaths.”

The maestro (Montano) is a wounded suicidal spirit who takes it out on the sea and on his fellowmen.  He lashes out at both nature and humanity for betraying him.  He sees everyone else’s shortcomings, but not his own inner wound.  Like all of us, he forgets he is just a wayfarer in this world, that he must learn to free himself of the pains of the past, and that he must recover a sense of “whereto he is hastening.”  The film seems to say, in a classic Gnostic way, that the way to freedom is by looking inward:  “But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and you are poverty.”

The maestro undergoes a resurrection after he is bound in a net and dumped into the sea by his disaffected followers.  In the film’s most dramatic moment, he drowns, but frees himself and rises from the depths, a new person.  I think he died.  But he comes back on board like a ghost, a spirit cured of all resentment, a passerby in this imperfect world.   Cesar Montano plays this redemptive role even better than he did Rizal.  And he was outstanding as Rizal.

“Muro-ami” is Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s most spiritual film.  Yet institutional religion appears only fleetingly at the beginning of the film. The spirituality comes in the form of the pervasive solitude of the sea, the vulnerability of the fishing boat, the innocence of the children, the quest of death, and the conquest of death.

The first time Marilou told me about “Muro-ami”, it did not occur to me that she was thinking of a film for the millennium.  This is an elegantly accomplished film; it is apocalyptic in a very sensible way.  It brings out what is deep and numinous about our people’s spirituality.


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