Friday, May 4, 2012

TATLONG TAONG WALANG DIYOS [Three Years Without God, 1976]

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos: A Love Story

By Noel Vera


Rosario: Nora Aunor

Masugi: Christopher De Leon

Crispin: Bembol Roco

Cion: Yolanda Luna

Andoy: Mario Escudero

Written and directed by Mario O'Hara

Shown (in truncated form) on Skycable's Pinoy Blockbuster Channel, various times.

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God) starts on an ominous note: artillery and fire; corpses swept up by waves onto a beach; war and destruction. A narrator tells us the three years during the Second World War, when the Japanese occupied the country, were "three years when there was no God."

The story proper begins in media res; that is, in the middle of the action. Crispin (Bembol Roco), is at the town school, looking for Rosario (Nora Aunor). He finds her in a little hut in the schoolyard, shaded by trees. Crispin wants to say goodbye to Rosario--the Japanese are coming and he is joining the underground resistance.

This quiet scene is important; in the few minutes they have together, we have to see that Crispin and Rosario love each other deeply, and that Rosario is desolate at seeing him go. Mario O'Hara, Tatlong Taong's writer-director, handles this scene with great restraint: there are no histrionics, no desperate declarations of eternal love.

Rosario is hurt and distant; Crispin tries to be consoling, even when he understands that Rosario is beyond consolation. It's Crispin's understanding that shows the depth of the relationship: they love each other so much they're inside each other's heads. They know, instinctively, what the other is feeling, and (a nice touch by O'Hara) this intimacy is less a source of pleasure than it is a source of acute pain.

The next few scenes are transitory: how Rosario and her family are abandoned by their terrified neighbors; how the Japanese steal their rice and pigs and chickens; how they are reduced to eating roasted sweet potato for their main meal. When Crispin comes again for supplies and for rest, he is a blooded rebel, with friends. He tells Rosario in graphic detail what it feels like to kill a man. Rosario, disturbed, prays that God take care of Crispin--even at the expense of her own safety.

Enter Masugi (Christopher De Leon), and his doctor friend, Francis (Peque Gallaga). Masugi's a half-breed soldier--part Japanese, part Filipino; Francis, it's implied, is a Spanish mestizo. Masugi is lost, and tired. He demands directions, and something alcoholic to drink. Rosario, angry at Masugi's boorish behavior, demands that he leaves. Masugi is attracted to Rosario; being drunk, and being used to the invincible authority of a Japanese officer, he makes a pass at her. Rosario slaps him; insulted, Masugi hits her. Francis holds Rosario's family at gunpoint while Masugi chases her down into the basement and rapes her.

It's a familiar story with wartime Filipinos; the family's young women taken aside by Japanese soldiers and brutally used. When Masugi comes back the next day and makes friendly overtures to Rosario, we're on Rosario's side: how dare he take up where he left off? And how dare he look so sincere  about it?

We eventually learn that he is sincere: he helps her family, and he's happy when he learns that she's pregnant. Rosario's family is won over by Masugi's canned goods and rice and his well-meaning attempts to make amends, but Rosario refuses to forgive Masugi. He's not just a rapist, he's Japanese--the personification of everything she, her family, and every wartime Filipino fear and hate. More, Rosario loves Crispin, and any sign of relenting on her part would mean betraying him. Rosario is cornered all around--her hatred of the Japanese in general and Masugi in particular on one side, her growing attraction for Masugi on the other. She's waging--bravely, as she does all things--a one-woman Resistance movement all her own, except she's less and less sure what she should resist.

Sometimes her defiance takes her beyond the boundaries of common humanity. When her father is arrested in a shooting incident and Masugi gets him out, Rosario is angry. She doesn't care if her father is safe; all she knows is that they're even deeper in Masugi's debt. "Not once," she declares when her mother chides her, "did I accept a gift from him." Her mother looks down at her swollen belly and says: "you're lying and you know it. You have something of Masugi's, and you're still keeping it." Rosario blinks, as if slapped in the face.

Rosario's dilemma is similar to what Huck Finn faced near the end of Mark Twain's great classic, Huckleberry Finn, when Huck learns that his friend, Nigger Jim, has been captured and chained. Society taught Huck that it's wrong to free slaves; should he go and free his friend? Should Huck do something clearly wrong--willfully damn himself to hell, in effect--for the sake of friendship, and love? Is Rosario ready to accept a Japanese officer--the conqueror and killer of so many of her people, and the man who raped her?

The fiercest assault on Rosario's resolve comes from an unexpected source. Francis has just helped Rosario given birth; as she lies on bed resting, he sits beside her and talks--just talks. He tells her what kind of man Masugi is--how his parents were killed inside a Filipino prison, how he had to make his way alone across chaotic Manila, to seek safety with Francis. He tells Rosario of how the war has brutalized Masugi, and taught him not to think--simply act and fight, like an animal. Rosario and her child has changed Masugi; can't she open up to him just a little?

I don't know what went into this scene--presumably Gallaga's Tagalog was less than perfect (he is a Bacoleno, and possibly more familiar with Spanish), and O'Hara must have seized upon this limitation and turned it to the scene's advantage. Francis' twisted Tagalog--his helplessly groping, yet determined need to say the right words to Rosario--is what makes the scene heartbreaking. O'Hara has hinted before at the closeness between the two men, but only now, between the awkward pauses in Francis' speech, does the depth of the relationship come through.

Art critic Jolicco Cuadra claims that Francis and Masugi must have been, at one point, lovers. As proof, he offers a scene where the two are urinating: friends look at each others' penises and shyly compare notes; lovers do not--they are already familiar with each other's genitals. It's a fascinating claim, and it fits neatly into the scheme of the film, but ultimately, it's beside the point. Francis and Masugi's love for each other is another variation on the main theme, and whether the love was physically expressed or not isn't half as important as the fact that Francis' love for Masugi moves Rosario, shows her how wrong she is to resist him.

Perhaps Francis's speech was the last straw; perhaps it's the recurrent image of Masugi grinding away on top of her, whispering endearments. But something breaks in Rosario; she feels she has to resolve this conflict the only way possible. The act she proposes is brutal in its logic, extending as it does her line of thinking to its ultimate and terrible conclusion. There must have been a moment, possibly while standing on the stone bridge, when Rosario looked back and saw the steps she took along the way--how valid they seemed at the time, how reasonable and sane--and compared to them, how monstrous the act she is about to do.

And she backs down. She doesn't have the heart--she doesn't have the hate in her--to go through with it. It's ironic that an act of acceptance, of love and forgiveness, can seem craven and cowardly to the one committing it.

Rosario's decision is the turning point of the film; from then on, she is on Masugi's side, and she never wavers, even when she meets Crispin again, even until the end. O'Hara, having taken pains to show us the wrongness of Rosario's defiance, now demonstrates the wrongness of the rest of the world in judging Rosario for her decision. Rosario has done what she felt in her heart was true to her, what O'Hara makes us all feel was true and right and good for her; now we realize exactly what Rosario has done: gone over to the Japanese, married one of their officers--just when they were on the brink of losing the war.

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is remarkable for what the two halves of its story are able to achieve. In the first half O'Hara pulls us through the looking-glass to the other side. He stops the world on its axis and turns our expectations inside-out and upside-down, showing just how the wrong man--as wrong a man for Rosario as can be--can turn out to be the right one, a loving husband, after all. For the second half, O'Hara performs a simpler, even more amazing act: he allows the world to start rolling again, and lets us watch while it rolls over both Rosario and Masugi.

In The Human Factor, Graham Greene writes that nations don't matter, people do, and that a man's country is his wife and child; with this rationale, the English hero of the novel acts as undercover agent for the Soviet Union, betraying his country for his South African wife and her bastard child. In the novel (and later film of) Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, Count Almasy betrays England for the sake of a woman he loves, an Englishwoman (later, burnt out of all recognition, Almasy with his British accent is mistaken for an Englishman--the "English patient" of the novel's title). All three stories share one element in common, and that's the intensity of our identification with the betraying hero--Maurice in The Human Factor, Count Almasy in The English Patient, Rosario in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. We look at the world through their eyes, and we are made to understand how reasonable their treason seem to them, how they did it for the higher cause of someone or something they cared about. All three seem to say to us: "if you can't do anything--literally anything--for the one person you care about most; if you can't betray your country, your friends, your own self for the sake of the one you love, then your love means nothing, your love is worthless."

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and its better-known, more literary cousins are subversive in the worse sense. If everyone adopted this kind of thinking as their guiding principle, the world would slide into chaos; espionage would be the primary industry of the world and no one can trust anyone who was capable of any kind of attachment.

There are those, of course, who argue that the world is already in chaos, that espionage is already the world's biggest industry, and that no one should be trusted, ever.

A love story? Why yes, though it may come as a bit of a shock after all the wild flights of philosophy we've been taking: Tatlong Taong Walang Diyosis basically a love story. It's a fiery, flawed, fearless film, reckless and outsized in its quiet intensity, its understated passion. It speaks more eloquently on the nature of love and sacrifice than any hundreds of tepid local and Hollywood equivalents, and it speaks from a mind alarmingly well-informed on the great cruelties--and great love--human beings are capable of. And, (unlike, say, The English Patient) it does so in a plainspoken manner, without resorting to complex time schemes and finely written (meaning almost unreadable) language.

By the film's end Rosario sits alone in a church with no one to turn to, no one to protect her. She once again resorts to prayer, and asks nothing from God except to look after her baby. It's a risky move, a desperate move; she did this once before for Crispin, and as with Crispin, her prayer was paid for by her own pain and suffering. You might call Rosario's the tragic story of a girl whose prayers are always answered; the tragedy lies in the swiftness and brutality with which God answers her prayers. Later, Crispin sits in the same church. He is alive and well, thanks to Rosario, but (again, thanks to Rosario) alone. He asks a priest if there is a God--an old question, but asked in Crispin's sad and bitter voice, a question with an edge.

The priest gives a wise and reassuring reply: that Masugi and Rosario and his love for each other are a sign of God's presence, even in wartime. The reply is a little too pat, a little too well-prepared; it's the kind priests through the years have given to sad and bitter questions. You wonder how just much faith O'Hara puts in that reply.

Then O'Hara gives his own answer, in the form of a blind man lighting a candle for himself and his palsied brother. The blind man carefully picks up the child, and makes his way out the church just when a procession, complete with hundreds of candles and heavily costumed wooden saints, marches in. The symbolism is somewhat obvious--true faith walks quietly out the door, while pomp and pageantry make a grand, meaningless entrance. But the entire wordless scene is so quietly understated, so beautifully shot and staged--a perfect example of the purest cinema--that it literally takes your breath away. Yes, Crispin, there is a God--only he could have inspired O'Hara to shoot a scene like that.


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