Ang Larawan (2017)
based on Nick Joaquin’s English literary play “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.”
I first heard about the movie version of “Ang Larawan” from a Facebook post of my childhood friend, Popo Suanes, who said he was asked to be part of the ensemble for the movie’s Virgin of La Naval finale procession scene. I have only seen the 1965 restored film version shown at the CCP in 2015 called “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino” directed by National Artist Lamberto V. Avellana but never the PETA stage versions in Tagalog first as “Larawan” (1969 and 1979) and secondly as a Tagalog musical adaptation called “Ang Larawan -The Musical” (1997) so I was excited to see how the black-and-white 1965 film in English would translate into a Tagalog musical. On its opening day, Christmas Day, mom and I were there to see the movie at Shangri-La Plaza Cinema right after our Christmas lunch. We saw some elderly people who were brought inside the theater in wheelchairs to attend the screening. The appreciative audience applauded after the movie and stayed until the end credits.
The setting is in Intramuros in October 1941 before World War II and the plot is about a painting, an old house and the family conflict which revolves around both. The Marasigan family is made up of two spinster sisters, Candida and Paula, their impoverished and reclusive painter father Don Lorenzo and his two other scheming children, Pepang and Manolo, who want to sell the old house since Don Lorenzo has ceased to paint and they are tired of financially supporting the sisters. To pay the mounting gas, water and electricity bills, the sisters take in a young, attractive and opportunistic male boarder, Tony Javier, who uses his charms to let them sell Don Lorenzo’s much talked-about self-portrait of his old and young self to an American buyer for $10,000 so he can get a commission and augment his measly earnings as a two-bit vaudeville piano player.
The movie, like a true period film, opens with a song about Intramuros (that’s Celeste Legaspi singing) accompanied by an old black-and-white film showing Intramuros which then merges into the actual film in sepia tone through a street scene with people where you see cameos from Ricky Davao (who previously played Tony Javier), Mikee Cojuangco, Martin del Rosario. We see the character of Bitoy Camacho, a journalist and family friend, (Sandino Martin) entering the old house to visit the sisters after so many years and to inquire about the painting which has created a buzz among art aficionados after a French tourist who is an admirer of Don Lorenzo’s work praised the painting in an article about it. They reminisce about the good old days of soirees at the homes of the old rich families including the Marasigans.
We are also introduced to family friends visiting the old house like Don Perico (Robert Arevalo), a senator who chose practical politics over starving poetry, and his wife Dona Loleng (Celeste Legaspi); their daughter Patsy (Cara Manglapus); socialite Elsa Montes (Zsa Zsa Padilla) who brought the conga to Manila and her escort Charlie Dacanay (Rayver Cruz) all of whom have their own opinion about the painting since it is Don Lorenzo Marasigan’s (Leo Rialp) final oeuvre and his gift to his spinster daughters. Later on at a celebration in the house, we see other old family friends like Don Aristeo (Jaime Fabregas), Dona Upeng (Dulce) and Don Alvaro (Bernardo Bernardo); Dona Irene (Nanette Inventor) and Don Miguel (Noel Trinidad) who join the Marasigan family to celebrate the feast of the Virgin of La Naval with a toast.
The actors selected to play the roles are topnotch led by Joanna Ampil (Candida) who delivers a tour-de-force performance (I heard about Joanna before but did not really know her until this movie and I became an instant fan) and Rachel Alejandro (Paula) who matches the intensity of Joanna with her own brilliant, quiet fire. I always thought both roles were balanced but, based on readings, Paula is a supporting role to Candida’s lead. Both sisters are opposites like yin and yang in Chinese philosophy because Candida is fire and Paula is ice. Paulo Avelino brings the right kind of naughty and smoldering charm needed to be a Tony Javier whose youthful character represents the new and materialistic breed in contrast to the old and conservative as embodied by the spinster sisters and the decaying house. Veteran actor Robert Arevalo was born to play the part of Don Perico. His character epitomizes the typical starving artist who must make a choice to pursue his art as a poet or heed the call of money and practicality as a senator. Dona Loleng’s (Celeste Legaspi) character is a scene stealer and she emerges onscreen to the delight of the audience with her colorful and flamboyant song number. Noteworthy appearances by Cris Villongco (Susan) and Aicelle Santos (Violet) as the flirtatious vaudeville showgirls and Ogie Alcasid and Jojit Lorenzo as Pulis Tinio and Pulis Bernal provide the movie with light and comic moments.
The soul of a musical is the music score and Maestro Ryan Cayabyab, a music legend in his own right, brings to us a memorable score, performed by the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra, including vocally-challenging songs with soaring notes expertly interpreted by Joanna Ampil and Rachel Alejandro and the cast. The libretto of National Artist for Literature and Theater Rolando Tinio is exceptional since it seamlessly shifts the conversational dialogue into song and back. Technical aspects are remarkable like the sound mixing, editing, cinematography, and production design.
My only quibble is that the supposedly old and decaying Marasigan house should have looked dark, dingy and somewhat cluttered due to hard times since the family is too poor to maintain it and no one has visited them in a long time. The house looked too shiny and well-maintained to be inhabited by a destitute family. The Marasigan sisters should have also looked unkempt in keeping with their wretched existence. It would have been interesting to see a gradual juxtaposition on the deteriorating condition of the spinster sisters and the old house from beginning to ending. There was also no establishing shot to show the house as one whole house only the façade so you wonder how the house really looks like. I had also wanted to see a direct shot of the actual painting (like the 1965 film) unless it was intentional to just leave the image of the painting to the imagination of the viewers. In the painting, Don Lorenzo portrays his young and old self as both Aeneas, a Trojan hero in Greek mythology, and his father Anchises as they flee the burning city Troy with Aeneas supposedly carrying on his back his father Anchises.
“Ang Larawan,” directed by award-winning filmmaker Loy Arcenas, is a must-see for everyone especially millennials because it is both entertaining and enlightening – two basic requirements of a good movie. Never boring, it is an entertaining film because of the wonderful music score, a high-spirited conga number led by Elsa Montes and inspired performances by the talented cast. It is also enlightening and informative because it gives us a glimpse of Old Manila. It shows a part of our history through a fictional tale of an impoverished family specifically the spinster sisters trying to desperately hold on to and fight for what is left behind – the painting, the house, their values – in the face of materialism, the changing times and the looming second World War. In Don Perico’s parting words to Candia and Paula “Contra Mundum! (Defy the World!).”
The title “Ang Larawan” is both a literal (the actual painting) and figurative (the Filipino artist) depiction of the Filipino artist. It is a sad commentary about starving artists who write or paint for their personal satisfaction. Their art gives them food for the soul but there is that sad realization that they also need to earn to put food on the table. As Don Perico said “what would you have wanted me to do? To go on scribbling pretty verses while my family starved?”
“Ang Larawan” is still showing in theaters. I am proud that mom and I saw it on the first day because of our commitment to see the movie.