Thy Womb opens with a woman giving birth. Shaleha (Nora Aunor), a midwife, accompanied by her husband Bangas-an (Bembol Roco), assists the soon-to-be-mother in delivering her child. Shaleha then routinely requests for the baby's umbilical cord. She brings the keepsake from the afternoon home, hangs it alongside all the other cords she has collected from the many mothers she helped. The hanging cords in her home are ostensibly a record of her noble profession. Ironically, it also serves as a painful reminder of the one nagging imperfection of her marriage with her husband, which is her inability to bear children for him. Nature has fated her with infertility. However, her culture has given her the opportunity to remedy it. By finding another suitable wife for her husband, she is able to fulfil what for her is the most essential of her familial duties.
Mendoza strips the film of most external conflicts, concentrating instead on the nuances of infertile Shaleha's relationship with her husband as she sets out to find a second wife for her husband to bear a child for him. Set in Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines' southernmost isles which have become infamous for being torn by warring government and Muslim secessionist forces, the film valiantly avoids sensationalizing war and instead delves into the human condition of a people who have grown accustomed to military presence. At one point, a wedding dance is abruptly stalled by violence. When the shock and confusion dissipates, the dance continues, almost as if nothing happened. Mendoza has effectively created a believable world wherein military conflict has weaved itself into the culture by sheer familiarity.
Thy Womb indulges in its depiction both nature and culture. Mendoza does not hide his fascination, relentlessly breaking his storytelling to make way for gorgeous images of endless seascapes and colorful tradition. He takes time revelling at whale sharks under the sea, or turtles' eggs hidden dearly beneath Tawi-Tawi's remote beaches. He stages elaborate Muslim ceremonies and rituals. Surprisingly, the film never feels as if it is treading too closely to exoticizing its subject locale. The overt visualization of both nature and culture seems essential to Mendoza's goals of exploring the interactions of culture and nature and the people who rely heavily on them for both sustenance and identity.
Henry Burgos' screenplay is admirably spare. It is unafraid of being judged not by the lyricism of the words spoken by the depicted ordinary folk, but by the measured silence. It allows the couple's relationship to simmer, to take root, to emotionally attach to the peering audience, before exposing the fissures that will unavoidably grow bigger. It masterfully orchestrates heartbreak, without any hint of artifice or machination. It gives Mendoza enough breathing room to scrutinize the world, which he does so without hardly any hesitation.
Aunor, who has been absent from Philippine cinema for several years despite being renowned as one of its living acting treasures, is the film's beating heart. Her dutiful portrayal of Shaleha is both spontaneous and intelligent. She cleverly interacts with her surroundings, not as an actress inhabiting a role but as a human being naturally reacting to very real scenarios. When the film requires silence, she makes use of her eyes, which seamlessly hypnotize the audience to believe her character's plight and sacrifice.
Thy Wombis observably quainter, tamer, and more mannered than Mendoza's previous works. However, it still resonates with the same removed yet still potent anger that only an artist who wants to depict truth from a distance can evoke. The film ends with more questions than answers, as it has to. The story, which is essentially the film's element that begs for a proper ending, is but a tool for Mendoza to frame the grand ironies that afflict humanity. When Shaleha asks for that final umbilical cord, she has finally severed the tie that has severely burdened her. We can only cry because we are also human.