Filipino master Brillante Mendoza returns to the Festival with the moving Thy Womb, which focuses on Bangas-An (Bembol Roco) and his wife Shalena (Nora Aunor), a childless, aging Muslim couple who eke out a hardscrabble existence on a remote island. They fish by day while Shalena painstakingly sews elaborate tapestries at night, and, when necessary, serves as the community’s midwife. In addition to the tough labour they engage in every day, the couple must deal with the nearby guerillas who routinely rob unlucky travellers on the sea. Yet these hardships all seem minor in comparison to the difficulties they face in trying to adopt a child. All seems hopeless, until Shalena makes a startling suggestion: that Bangas-An should take a second wife capable of giving him a child.
Shot in a strict realist style, Thy Womb is on one level a record of this tiny, isolated community’s daily existence, attentively capturing the minutiae of their unique way of life. (Some of which are not for the faint of heart —particularly those involving the preparations for a wedding banquet.) There’s a sense of timelessness to these moments, which makes the incursions on the community from the modern, outside world all the more powerful and disturbing. But don’t be taken in by the seeming artlessness of presentation: as always, Mendoza is nothing if not rigorous in the construction of his narrative, and as Bangas-An and Shalena pursue their last-ditch plan to obtain the child that they yearn for, it becomes ever clearer that some dreams come with a price that may be far too steep.
Aunor, one of the Philippines’ biggest and most beloved stars, offers a moving portrayal of a woman determined to provide her husband with a child, while Roco (who was seen at last year’s Festival in Adolfo Alix Jr.’s Fable of the Fish) is equally good as her stoic husband. Directed by Mendoza with an unfailingly keen eye for detail and attention to the rhythms of rural life, Thy Womb is a heartbreaking, devoutly humanist work.
*Steve Gravestock - Programmer of the 2012 Toronto International Film festival