Monday, September 30, 2013



REVIEW: Analytic awe from Jason Pilapil Jacobo, a member of the Young Critics' Circle (YCC):

A world is imagined to be more shapely when the geometric configuration of the sphere takes over the idea of landscape. Or else terrain falls back into that ancient conceit of flatness. Of course this historicizing belongs to the colonial order, but the cartographic claim is enabling for those whose place on earth is threatened by the techne of, let's say, geodesy. Such is the rift that needs to be resolved by the eponymous character played by Nora Aunor in Mes de Guzman’s Ang Kwento ni Mabuti.

The narrative pursues the labors of a peasant woman who forages what remains of the verdure of a piece of land that belongs to her clan but now needs to be ransomed from certain laws which demarcate the earth and expel those who have long nurtured it. Mabuti's mother (Josephina Estabillo) dreads the day that would find them living in a hut suspended from a tree at the edge of a cliff, but Mabuti refuses to succumb to that banishment from a sphere they have already emplotted as sacred.

To anticipate the good that is to come, and to internalize this practice of patience, Mabuti assumes the role of the shaman: summoner of the spirits, interlocutor ofthe elements, Aeolian harp on Nueva Vizcayan earth that plays the music of the spheres. With saliva and stone, Mabuti converses with the pharmakon (poison) of venom as the pharmakon (antidote) of devotion, bargains with the universe to remove the contagion, and restitutes the order of benevolence. All shall be well, because the world is enfolded into a state of grace. It may not be visible, but the good, in God’s time, shall foreground itself. The figure that completes the sphere is an embrace from the firmaments. Mabuti is a widow, and her son (Arnold Reyes) and daughter (Mara Lopez) have been taken away from her by metropolitan commerce and diasporic exchange, but with crone-mother and four elfin girl-grandchildren, the shaman asserts the insurmountable place of sympathy in a world that must wax in fortitude when fortune is on the wane.

Mes de Guzman has crafted a film whose milieu musters the enclosures and the extensions of what could be the scope of a cinema of a considerable degree of independence: the sphere of a locality whose roots and rhizomes can only allow the cosmos to open itself up to both providence and peril, which includes a bridge that is never completed, and military checkpoints which must delay travel into the city. The agon that emerges out of the depths must tilt fate toward disaster or away from it. This cusp allows the hailstone to hold within its core a precipitate of insight on cosmic change and the swarm to hover above the ambivalence of an ethic. This “dialectical image” empowers the writing to pursue the mystique against all manner of mystifying. The crisis then is only fomented not to threaten the place of the good but to test the ground on which its matter could speak.

The money that Mabuti inherits from Nelia (Sue Prado), a woman summoned and surrendered by the local insurgency, is not so much a metaphor of corruption but a metonym of corruptibility. The spell around the cash stolen from possibly the same bank that is keeping the title of Mabuti’s ancestral land may enchant the shaman. It is her misrecognition of the sorcery that must be apprehended. The good is intimated in the promise of goods, but only after the fetish about capital decays. Hence, two prospects from within Mabuti’s sphere appeal as objects of the gift: the four girl-children’s collegiate education and the crone-mother’s recovery from metastasis. And yet, these options remain improvident. When Mabutifinally resolves the compromise, the categorical imperative divorces itself from any possible imperial category. Mabuti is not turned into a philanthropist.At that moment, the exchange value is hinged upon the girl-child Marife, the daughter of the insurgent who sneaks the money inside Mabuti’s bag before sheis killed by the military. Marife’s term of ransom may be fiscalized by a known amount, but it can only be accounted for by an interminable capacity—Mabuti herself—the only sympathy that can correspond to the girl-child’s subaltern state.

The sanction of this ethic is suffered with an elegiac pace by the syntax of the sympathy, Nora Aunor. Her understanding of the pastoral is accurate, and almost exact in calibrating a sense of biome whose radii are aware of catastrophe and attentive to the fulfillment of the shamanic mandate. It is a range that understands both limit and infinity. Aunor’s formal attitude is most assured here, then. Her late style has become an archive of attunements that can relate with either primordial kernel or final foliage. Earthen is the range. Because she is comfortable treading the reed-path with swine, we forget the contempt we have attached to the animal, and our zootropy recuperates.

We have been instructed well on how Aunor enacts a moment of conviction to tell a truth or to release oneself from victimry, but the method of her act in this film homes in on crisis: the tentativity that surrounds its valences, the articulations of a dilemma that nonetheless electrifies the spirit, and that static moment where the only charge that matters is the epiphanic self.

Is anyone else capable of shifting into tenses of terror perfect and progressive upon finding out the excess in one’s baggage is money, money, money?

The ensemble of women that accompanies this performance must be celebrated for providing Aunor with formidable foils to her character’s predicament. Josephina Estabillo, the termagant, is such a levity. Sue Prado, the renegade, is imperturbable. Mara Lopez, the lovelorn, is by turns melancholic and sanguine. Not every seasoned performer knows the difference.

Ang Kwento ni Mabuti reveals to us that there are still stars, and the stars are still, in Nora’s eyes. Superstars, they remain. And we must gaze, gaze, gaze.





Young Jose Rizal threw the remaining pair of his slippers into the river and said, “A slipper would be useless without its pair.”

King Solomon – to settle a dispute – decided to split an infant into two halves and effectively identified the real mother.

From school textbooks to the Bible and even in movies, we hold our breaths in anticipation on how our hero or heroine respond to a moral crisis confronting him/her - from the simple to the complex - because through the consequences of their decisions, we are instructed and inspired.

In the Bernal classic Relasyon, Marilou (Vilma Santos) is torn as she accepts a part-time schedule by lover Emil (Christopher de Leon). What mistress would reject a sharing scheme proposed by the husband and approved by the legal wife?

Marilou’s dilemma is child’s play compared to Sophie’s choice. In Alan Pakula’s Holocaust tale, Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep) was asked to choose which of her two children would be gassed and she has to make that decision immediately or both children die. She survived the Holocaust but the decision to have her daughter gassed hunted her all her life until its tragic end.


In the thriller No Country For Old Men, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) never went through any conflict when he found a stash of cash. From the time he got hold of the drug money from a deal gone wrong, his only problem is how to run away with it as fast as he can. His only rule in life: finder’s keeper. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen made sure this isn’t about the right and wrong choices. This is simply about the hunt for the man with the drug money. And when the hunter is a psychotic killer whose weapon is a portable pressure tank, the movie becomes a bloody, violent thriller.


What if the finder is a poor woman with a heart of gold?

When I first heard of the premise of the Aunor-De Guzman collaboration, I was skeptical because money is overused in many art and literary pieces – from El Filibusterismo to Fargo to Misteryo sa Tuwa, money seduces, money kills, money is burnt like a source of plague when the damage is already widespread.

Dragging. Predictable. Gasgas na tema. But no problem could be bigger for Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti than the fact that it is coming on the heels of the majestic Thy Womb. How can a suspect Mes De Guzman top a Dante at his best? Or more importantly, how can a Nora top a Nora at her sublime peak?

The first frames rolled. Mes De Guzman is a hypnotist. Nora Aunor is a chameleon. And Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti is as powerful a morality tale as any of the most revered in the genre.


Nora Aunor plays Mabuti dela Cruz. She is everything to a poor family of an unfortunate son and daughter, playful granddaughters and a grumpy mother. They live in a remote mountain hut “na walang magkakainteres”. She is hardworking and has heart to help her townmates in anyway she can –she heals dog bites using saliva and a white stone. Like Shaleha in Thy Womb, Mabuti is a source of joy to her neighborhood. But unlike Shaleha in Thy Womb, Mabuti seemed fine with everything coming her way. She can shrug off every crisis – impending or present – and she calms everyone with a hug and a smile.


Then the real crises come, her mother is terminally ill and the land is about to be repossessed due to delayed payments. But a tougher test is coming. Five million pesos in cold cash falls literally on her lap. The money is stained with the blood of rebels and hold-up victims. The goodness in Mabuti is now under severe conflict.


De Guzman is no clown. He is not for a show. He shows the truth. The sad truth. The truth we don’t want to see. My friend Janna after watching Diablo became a fan and it’s no mystery. Mes De Guzman’s storytelling style is without compromise. In fact – and now I understand the disappointments of some – he has ‘no’ regard for his audience. In the Star Cinema era of captive market, audience tests and audience likeability, here comes the new breed of independent artists with their shaking cams and unique stories waiting for an audience not to applaud but to be appalled. Mes is not out to impress. He is out to pounce on his audience’s heart and pierce it to awakening.

Dragging? Scenes after scenes – I was hooked from the very start. The rugged mountainous trek, the magic realism, the characters, the rebel war, the scene-stealing barangay captain. Then there’s Nora.


Nora’s prayer scene and moon scenes in Thy Womb have not only given her four international awards. It raised the bar of excellence even for her. And just when we thought Shaleha cannot be topped, here comes another spellbinding performance from Nora. From her walks with her grandchildren to her tending the irrigation to manning the pigs, Nora is every move, every square inch Mabuti dela Cruz – the farmer. But what amazes me more is Nora’s ability to make her two recent characters – Shaleha and Mabuti - entirely different from each other. Shaleha as the loving but determined barren midwife and Mabuti as the cheerful and calm farmer and faithhealer. How she manages to hide from me any similarities of acting is a mystery. Technique? Meticulous guidance of De Guzman? Pure genius? Luck? Only God knows, for even great thespians like Streep, Nicholson and Dench keep acting mannerisms as they jump from one character to another. The total distinction between Mabuti and Shaleha is simply creepy. Was it the same Nora Aunor who played both? Or there are really two different Nora Aunor’s? Ghostly. Creepy. Just look at the Mabuti looking around, clutching the bag of money all alone in the rugged mountain road. Look at the eyes of fear and defiance. One critic wrote that the performance is ‘one for the books’. I say – ‘a performance someone must write a book about’.



As the film ends, Mes De Guzman is clever enough not to hinge the greatness of this psychological moral drama on surprising endings or dramatic twists.

At the final scene where Mabuti is travelling with her family inside a van, I focused my attention on Mabuti’s eyes.

Gone is the tortured look.

Gone is the cheerful look.

There is now calm resolve in her eyes.

In No Country For Old Men, the finder of the money – because of his clear practical stand - knew instantly he had to run away to hide the money but failed and met a tragic death.

In Ang Kuwento Ni Mabuti, the finder of the money – because of her virtuous nature – cannot decide and was confused at the beginning. That eyes at the finale confirmed she now knows what to do with the money.

In an imaginary Best Actress contest, multi-awarded Superstar Nora Aunor will be defeated by a certain Mabuti dela Cruz - a poor, virtuous woman who found a stash of cash.

Nora’s eyes expresses.

Mabuti’s eyes conceals.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ang Kwento ni Mabuti (Mes de Guzman, 2013)

By Lyndon Maburaot

September 26, 2013


In Mes de Guzman’s Ang Kwento ni Mabuti, narrative progression is spare and monotony and nothingness are the point. Nothing happens in the first half of the film, and that is deliberate. The story to which everything clings to is skeletal and the follow-ups are far between, sidetracked by inactivity and lackadaisicalness: a letter arrives, threatening Mabuti’s household of an impending confiscation of their land for an unsettled tax payment overdue. Mabuti summons the help of the Barangay Captain, who in turn recommends a land officer from a nearby town who can assist her. On her way home from the town, an incident happens that leaves her with a bag full of money. For a strapped like her, what she will do with it? For a full-length film, the said narrative arc is so thin one may dismiss it as insubstantial. Or a mere excuse for de Guzman’s more pressing concern: an ethnographic roundup of a remote countryside, Sitio Kasinggan in Nueva Vizcaya, where stretches of greens, big mountains and high trees are a reflection of how far removed the place is from civilization. The inhabitants of the sitio are poor, relying on crops and homegrown livestock for survival; the kubos are far apart, the sick prefers faith healing than medicine. The sitio, like all barrios and barangays in the Philippines, is ruled by a Barangay Captain, and he, like most crooked political leaders, is housing a small-time gambling operation, with amassed coins, a revenue from it, taking forever to count. This time of the year, election is coming up and he is egging  on the sitio’s faith healer, Mabuti, to run. In here, transportation is difficult. The roads are narrow. The towns are far apart, taking more than five hours to get to the other town. Leftists hide in the thickness of the forest. And occasional gunfight with the military ensues. The film is so keen on mapping out a culture we might as well be living there. And that is what sets this film apart. The skeleton is basic but the meat and the muscles covering it are sufficiently bulky there is no way the whole package can’t be authentic. And this ethnographical astuteness is served its purpose aesthetically when, later on, Mabuti is temporarily displaced from the sitio. She goes to the provincial capital to process something and she suddenly becomes a stranger, the place she has been accustomed to now far from her. She has to contend with vaster new environment where people she meets are strangers, the houses bigger and closer against each other. When she has to settle for the deserted side of the street to sleep away the night, herself helpless and alone, we suddenly become aware of where she came from. There is no truer ethnographic sketch of Sitio Kasinggan than seeing it from afar, and in the dead of the night.

And for all its ultra-realism on the depiction of a culture, it doesn’t stay bounded by its matter-of-factness. The very first scene shows us with Mabuti clutching a bag, her eyes peeled in stupefaction, while the fogs and the clouds impossibly form and unravel and reshape before her.  This kind of providential intervention becomes propelling factor to the narrative every now and then. Sitio Kasinggan, by default, is still steeped in tradition where faith healing is yet a vital part of its way of life. Where a snake bite or a dog bite is cured by the power of white stone and mere application of saliva. How could that be when the rabies is not sucked out from the system? Science does not figure here, or logical scrutiny of what is transpiring. When Mabuti is confused whether to return the money or not, circumstances give her the answer. On her way to the Barangay Captain, where she plans to surrender the bag full of money, the weather suddenly changes, showing her signs, trapping her. Not entirely convinced, she goes to the military camp to coordinate about the return of the money, but the camp is, again, suddenly deserted. Some unknown forces are taking place! Humongous insects flock unexpectedly. A drizzle of snow comes one night.  A path blocked by landslide becomes rapidly and miraculously passable. That path is leading to Sta Clara where Mabuti must need to go.  When Mabuti dillydallies to get Nelia’s daughter from Sta Clara as instructed, an impossible number of jeepneys crisscross before her, all of them flashing the Sta. Clara signboard, luring her rather forcibly to get in. The events here are not decided by human being alone. Something circumstantial helps things take form. The film, therefore, becomes allegorical in harnessing its points, giving its entirety an air of extraordinariness.

What is further admirable from the minimalist way de Guzman shoehorns his message is his surefooted dedication to create an atypical character at/as the center of all of these. Screenwriting books and workshops would always insist on an active protagonist, one who always finds ways to achieve his goal. In here, the heroine is the opposite, in a way, breaking the said rule. De Guzman’s heroines are of this kind. His lead character in Diablo, Nana Lusing, is an old woman living alone, abandoned by her children. Her days are spent on tuning in to an old radio and observing the time pass by. In Ang Kwento Ni Mabuti, de Guzman further complicates his heroine, by making her unreceptive and later on shaking her moral compass to check how she, with that passivity, will react. Everything about this film is an inspection of a character. For instance, Mabuti’s son and daughter give her character a weight, a baggage to carry on her shoulders. Both’s children, all four girls with one named Kate Winslet, they left with Mabuti to raise. And yet, Mabuti remains positive and uncomplaining. She tends to her granddaughters lightly and even goes playing with them sometimes. Her moral values are gleaned from how she deals with her daughter, Angge (Mara Lopez), whose three children are fathered by three different men, now all vanished from Angge’s life. Mabuti is never judgmental with Angge. Is she just too forgiving? Or is just too naïve? This unconditional acceptance is further bolstered when Angge gets pregnant again for the fourth time and, again, from a different man. Her reaction to the said news is not the usual: no, we don’t hear a shouting marathon of rage and condemnation. Instead, she pulls her daughter closer, wraps the latter with willing arms, her hug warm and reassuring.

Mabuti’s mother, Guyang (Josephine Estabilo), is utilized to give her character’s outlook a counterpoint. Where Mabuti is lax and democratic (she lets the grandchildren be, playing all day), Guying is strict (obliging the great-granddaughers to help more in the household chores); where Mabuti is sunny, Guyang is cranky.

And every which way available, de Guzman keeps delineating Mabuti’s character. When one time Mabuti passes by Angge’s store unannounced and witnesses her daughter’s current man copulating with another woman, she is taken a back. But her surprise is just a natural spur-of-the-moment reaction. She does not tell her daughter about what see saw afterwards.  And this character signification peaks when de Guzman gives Mabuti a bagful of money to test her morality, character, passivity and the like.

Characterization is likewise employed as a narrative tool. Mabuti by nature has a ready smile. She grins when she is happy, when she interacts with the granddaughters, when she crosses with everyone in the street. A letter presenting her of a possible land problem does not wipe from her mouth’s corners that upward curve. Poverty does not either. Or even problems her son and daughter bring her. This is characterization physicalizing her mindset, her simplicity and her principles (or the absence of it). But when an opportunity (the big amount of money) is suddenly presented to her, she starts to reassess her circumstances and her being. And then the smile becomes scarce.

And playing this, Mabuti, is Nora Aunor. Just as when one thought Nora gave her all as barren wife in Thy Womb, Ang Kwento ni Mabuti comes on the heels, the actor sealing her return as a consummate performer. Gone are Nora’s tics of the nineties, her employment of unnecessary hand gestures, her accentuated delivery of lines. Nora’s appreciable restraint in Mabuti is matched by providing peculiarity to the character. Where the characterization requires an ever-smiling heroine, Nora heaps it, the easy grins, with touches of simper.  And the consistency of her moderated rendition of Mabuti is further authenticated by the absence of real highlight. What she shows here is surprising. With a tumultuous personal life hardening every corner of her being, she couldn’t be capable of portraying simplicity at her purest! It is akin to crossing to the opposite side of the pole to convince us she is rightly there, all along, feet firmly planted.  But she does! In here, she unlearned all those layers she acquired through the years, peeled off all shields, all protectors, until she is stripped to her barest. And what is left of her, the residue we got here in this film, is, sustained by a fully-realized character, a graceful performance, may be for the books, and unlike any other we’ve seen from her to date.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013



“Bilang tagapagtaguyod ng realism sa pelikula, ang pangaral ay wala sa estetika ni de Guzman.”—Bienvenido Lumbera reviewing Mes de Guzman’s Diablo

What Bienvenido Lumbera, a member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino and National Artist, is saying is that as a purveyor of a kind of cinematic realism, being didactic is not part of Mes de Guzman’s aesthetics. The film Diablo from last year won the Gawad Urian for Best Screenplay and established de Guzman as a major voice of Philippine cinema, indie or not.

And now, he is the strong and wonderful voice behind a film titled Ang Kwento ni Mabuti. The film cannot be described merely as a morality tale for that description would diminish the pungency of this film. That would make this work of de Guzman common. To read the story of Mabuti is to travel on the narrow road to sin and salvation without being Catholic or Christian. For that is not the only route for persons. The film does not tread on the path of any Biblical passages. What it has is a confrontation with nature, to cite one example, and what it offers is a reading of the rumbling or rains from the sky as having meaning more significant than, well, clouds and rains and hailstorm.

The film begins with Mabuti trudging on a hilly path, the mountains and sky and clouds witnesses to her walk. I say witnesses because that is how we were brought up to divine the divine from things bigger and mightier than ourselves. The mountains are arid and the sky is silent but we are free to interpret heavens and transcendence, or even the wrath of the divine coming from the surroundings.

This is the irony of the film: that we search for moral lessons and scary warnings from what have been pushed to the corner as the murmur of metaphysics. We have the physis here, the matter by which we create our notion of what is correct or appropriate. If there is something that rises above the physical, then it is the art of the filmmaker and that of its leading actor, Nora Aunor. This is enough. This is more than enough than all the moralizing put together by those who require moral lessons from any cinematic outing.

The role of Mabuti is ordinary. She is a woman content with life in an isolated village. Her world is inhabited by her grandchildren left there by a daughter who, it seems, falls in love easily. That emotion ends always with the daughter pregnant again and again.

With a different man each time. But we cannot judge this daughter because Mabuti, the mother, does not. Mabuti’s mother, the children’s great-grandmother, does the judging. But it is no more a moral commentary than a gripe for the difficulties of life. Mabuti understands her mother and, in fact, embraces her after discussion with all the care and tenderness of a loving daughter. This is unconditional love never presented before with such tremendous silence and grip.

It is, however, the absence of moral judgment from the perspective of the protagonist, Mabuti, that burdens us once more to contemplate what Catherine Wheatley calls the “ethic of image.” Reviewing the cinema of Michael Haneke, Wheatley talks of the “act of spectatorship as a morally charged act.”

Wheatley, in the same paper, tells us of the process of this act: “...the position of moral spectatorship that Haneke creates for the audience has its own rewards. For it teaches us freedom of consciousness and allows us a position where we neither impose our own experiences on the film, nor allow film to impose itself on us.”

Indeed, we are all spectators in the unfolding of the tale of Mabuti. Indeed, we are aware of the extraordinarily ordinary spectacle of a woman so poor that her only wealth is tied to an unmovable property: land—and that land is about to be confiscated.

De Guzman offers a concept of good and evil that is historical. The crisis of Mabuti is linked to something that exists outside but near the village of her birth. This is the contribution of the film: Mabuti’s trials are common, regular and real. We can meet them ourselves and grapple with them, given our own religion, although the director does not say that, or given our economic statuses, which the film does not underscore.

In the much-honored film Thy Womb, film readers spoke of cinema as ethnography. The literature of documentations, however, will remind us that ethnographic accounts are ahistorical, as if the story is always in that pristine state of narrative. Thus, the term “ethnographic present.” If that is the kind of filmmaking that de Guzman engages in, then he is not into the discourse of realism. But, as we say, he is realistic, the director who, according to Lumbera, props up realism.

Is this realism about moral choices? I do not offer any answer. The absence of an answer is itself an answer. The many answers are also allowed as answers. As with life, ambiguity is not exotic but given. There are no clear choices for if there are, the mountains will not stare at Mabuti, the skies will not give a distant rumble, and the rains will not bring ice to a tropical village.

The mountains are almost sacred at the beginning, not because they are but because our own belief systems have made them holy when contemplated. The hailstorm, however, that brings about the shower of ice is imagined by the children as a fitting ingredient for halo-halo. The mundane and the fantastic, the regular and the uncommon mix in a profusion of magical impressions.

In Diablo a mother who waits for her children to come and be with her look at the walls at night. But we are the spectator in that it is us who see the shadows. The forebodings are for us; the moral quandary is with us. This is the same feeling one gets when viewing Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti. Ours is a gift and the shackle of omniscience, a wonderful if not bothersome treat from a story that is as real as any contemporary depiction of reality.

In these problems about reality, we meet characters like the “Kapitan,” the barangay leader who hides the counting of jueteng bets at the back of his house. He is assisted by a young man who is startled by the routine. We meet along the way, for the road seems to be opening and closing always in Mabuti’s terrain, the two young men. One assists the other who gets bitten by dogs and snakes. Then there is the mother of Mabuti, a loving tyrant supported by tradition, and a brother whose long journeys are bound to become metaphors about fate rather than business trips.

Josephina Estabillo as Guyang, the great grandma, is a reassuring presence. She is about the wonder and wisdom of aging. Arnold Reyes drops the gestures and the facial twitches and disappears with each journey as his character blends with the practical horizon. Sue Prado, as always, is the master of the common appearances. One remembers her because her life is short. As with any event in other people’s lives. Outside of the actors are the characterizations created by de Guzman. I think of the military men preparing the bed for a poor peasant. In that image, one is burdened with the goodness of soldiers caught in the crossfire of violent stereotypes of the benign versus the malignant.  

Still, we cannot talk of Mabuti, the character so simple and regular, without talking of Nora Aunor. It is because Nora Aunor is Nora Aunor that a piece of cinema about the grandeur of the everyday succeeds. I cannot think of any actor who can perform for us an exercise about how life is sumptuous and gripping in its familiarity. And, I cannot imagine any other actor who has reached such maturity than Nora Aunor as Mabuti. This is a different actor, smiling with all the candor of a common tao, grieving because there is a loss, no more and no less, derived of a moral compass because life as real is more complex than any reading of values.

Clutching a bag full of money the amount of which could save her family from poverty, Nora Aunor as Mabuti stops at her tracks. She pauses and looks up. That glance, that ceasing teases us to read signs on the aridity of the landscape. But there are no signs. There are no symbols. The absence of commentary makes us want to cry. Have we been abandoned by that we know as the Almighty? Are we to take care of ourselves? We wait for the light to shine upon this lone character but de Guzman is virulently realistic. The narrative moves on. Mabuti goes through the habit of life. The daily work, the absence of sound, the laxity of conversations—all this Nora Aunor as Mabuti distills into one astutely peaceful performance.

That night of the premiere, the presence of Gil Portes and Joel Lamangan was announced. This is an interesting footnote to Nora Aunor’s career. The two directors are poles apart in helping the actor craft a character. The sublime silence in the character of the nurse played by Aunor in ‘Merika now stands out when remembered against the theatrically engaged delineation of the many characters of the films done by Lamangan with the thespian. Nora Aunor, it seems, has come full circle. She has become the high priestess of the difficultly prosaic, presiding over tales that warn and wonder and wail—if need be.

Cesar Hernando does the effective production design of the film. Mes de Guzman writes the screenplay and directs. The film was honored with the prizes for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay for de Guzman in the first CineFilipino Awards.

In Photo: The legendary and multiawarded Nora Aunor turns in another exceptionally sublime performance as the title character in Ang Kwento ni Mabuti. The Superstar has become the high priestess of the difficultly prosaic, presiding over tales that warn and wonder and wail—if need be.


REVIEW: The gospel of Mabuti and Mes de Guzman

By Michael U. Obenieta

It takes a miracle to make things appear utterly simple. Even mountains can move, no sweat, as if such spectacle were as unobtrusive as Basho's frog splashing into a pond. If only prayers for our individual or social ills could ripple with such ease, imperturbable and impervious from the complications of faith and hope. Recall the rumpus of worship and wishful thinking at the end of Ishmael Bernal's classic 'Himala'---the crowd still dragging themselves on bended knees hard on the heels of a riot, returning to the hill where deception and its deadly consequence only raised the needy's stakes for redemption.

Deliverance is the driving force that propels the dramatic tension in Mes de Guzman's 'Ang Kwento ni Mabuti.' Obviously allegorical, its titular protagonist lives up to the lightness of being good-natured, bearing with equanimity everything gone bad in her family and around her community in the boondocks. Never mind if her luckless children have left her with four granddaughters to feed on top of her sickly mother even as they are threatened with eviction from their land. Where she's famous for her kindness and her folksy remedies, her generosity and gladness are not always full of grace. This paradox--jam-packed in a country so blessed with natural bounty and inner resources of cheer but accursed with wasted opportunities and desperate need--epitomizes Mabuti's epic struggle as well. No less Sisyphean, indeed, is Mabuti's unassuming stance of standing true to Pollyanna's optimism. That goodness will prevail is another story, however, especially as long as the rock and roll of a self-centered culture persists along with the narrative of inequity, inescapable like the maddening cult of greed in our midst.

In medias res, Mabuti's tale begins. She is trudging uphill, out to untangle herself from a burden--a bagful of cash that fate may as well have plunked on her lap as good as a cosmic prank. Along the way she meets the village chieftain's minion who seemed weighed down by the windfall from his lord's unholy sidelines, always stumped in his menial task of counting money (from illegal gambling, probably). He and Mabuti may as well be two sides of the same coin, tossed where evil is rooted deep under a climate of corruption. Looks like it's going to rain, he told her. The rest is her story. The push of self-interest and the pull of conscience. The blurring of distances between right and wrong, unsettling her sense of direction. Where the uncertain weather stews the days and shifts to a night's shower of hail, the roads are also treacherous either in the wake of landslides or in the throes of insurgency and criminality that dispel the dreamy notion of an idyllic countryside. Beware of being lost, or sidetracked.

Finding a way out whether to let go of the bag or to hold on, Mabuti always ends up taking a detour until the very end, steered by circumstances beyond her will and always providential in its unexpected intervention--a downpour on the road, a military operation, a death in the family. The drift of her judgment and decision can only be a mere wave or raindrop in the oceanic scheme of things. In the mist-steeped mountains of Aritao that appear true to the Japanese mystics' mindset of "ukiyo" or floating world, everything looks impermanent. Or, unreal as the fog-filled landscape, it whittles down to the size and substance of a dewdrop not only Mabuti's ordinary life and the social realities around her but also our notions of morality.

Ethics, indeed, becomes riveting when we reckon at its ironies. Like hell, the road to disorientation and disappointment is paved with good intention. Self-proclaimed public servants, like the film's small-town politician, are fond of talking about taking their constituents to a higher ground until plunder (such as the pork barrel controversy, for instance) bogs the whole country down. So it comes to pass that incongruity of underdevelopment in the midst of plenty hounds the body politic, threatening collective infection.

Healing is hardly complicated. Handy does it in the case of the false visionary in Bernal's masterpiece (1982) and de Guzman's honest-to-goodness heroine (2013). Both film's healers portrayed by Nora Aunor, one only had to shut her eyes with a Marian devotee's silent invocation and the other merely chattered away with an unblinking animistic belief in the power of a white stone (after all, every object has a soul). Whether in the desert plains of Ilocos or in the denuded hinterlands of Nueva Vizcaya--both milieus serving as a stark metaphor for the nation's festering maladies of marginalization--Aunor reaffirms her artistry that is nothing short of supernatural. In both films, reminiscent of the rigor with which she fleshed out her finest collaboration with Lino Brocka and Mario O'Hara as well as Gil Portes' 'Merika' and Brillante Mendoza's 'Thy Womb', Aunor becomes a purifying force, forging a performance that is almost surgical in its precision to purge itself from artifice. Thus she she embodies authenticity as a source of comfort, stirring into clarity the context of her characterization as she blends like second skin into the familiar particulars of place and its people. She may as well be a non-actor, a detail in a documentary, or an echo from the stillness of a haiku.

Less is more. This Zen sensibility certainly reflects the aesthetics of de Guzman whose previous works, prickly with portents of conflict, are at once serene in its unhurried fluidity and studded with hints of revelations in spite of its spare visuals. Indeed, de Guzman's grasp of his material provides an antidote to the pompous contrivance of image and message that is the bane of most filmmakers too reliant on technique. With a cinematic design devoid of clutter and organic in its immersion with nature, de Guzman's narrative does not impose moral judgments on its situations and its inhabitants, intuiting as he does a sage-like capacity for sympathy. In mapping Mabuti's journey, de Guzman renders her dilemma to its sociospatial dimension or the contextual interweave of the individual and the collective. Insinuating "mono no aware" or the pathos of things even in the upbeat prospect of becoming an instant millionaire, Mabuti unmasks de Guzman's grin in bearing the sadness inherent in the world owing to its impermanence.

To the extent that de Guzman has written the most down-to-earth character in Aunor's fertile filmography so far, his lightness of touch has also suffused her creation with a sense of levity, an effervescence that assumes an air of levitation. No less magical is his evocation of a mini-Greek chorus for Mabuti with the contrapuntal voices of her cranky mother and her chirpy granddaughters, providing a tonal tapestry through her gaiety, grief, and grit en route to a state of grace. Such notes of uplift, though abundant in its instances, are handled with such intricacy as to be almost inconspicuous. These moments of rapture, for those keeping the faith for a cinema of meditation enshrined by the likes of de Guzman, are enough tell-tale signs of a true miracle.

Of Spiritual Peaks and a Parable

REVIEW: Ode to the grandeur of Ms. Nora Aunor by Wilfredo Pascual, multiple winner of the Palanca Awards and The Philippine Free Press Literary Prize for the Essay.

'Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti's trailer opens with geography, a mountain range shrouded in mist, those spiritual peaks that lock the rarely seen heart of Luzon. Nueva Vizcaya is a landscape somewhat different from the southern origins of its lead actress Nora Aunor who was born in volcanic Iriga surrounded by lakes. What does Aunor make of filmmaker Mes de Guzman's part of the world?

Playing the role of a poor, good-natured Ilocano folk healer, one of Aunor's tasks is simple and telling. Her portly figure treads through dry shrubs and cuts through tangles of vine. She stops where the water trickles, blows one end of a long rubber tube and places it under a shallow stream. In a province threatened by the unrelenting onslaught of armed conflict, illegal logging, mining and dam projects, will water run upstream and reach home?

These mountains contain and define Mabuti's world and we are almost certain that she will breath her last here, even as her children opt to do business in town or leave for Dubai in desperation. When she leaves the trail and makes a trip to town, her world is jolted. The killing of a rebel in a military checkpoint thrusts a bag of cash into her hands. What would she do with all that money? Who should have it? We can all diverge on what we would do if fate finds us in a similar situation, but what haunts Mabuti? And how is she haunted? The last questions are important because it unveils the seat of a hinterland's conscience, etched in Aunor's performance, an artist's marvelous and earnest response to the abode of the spirits, the dry wind and the dark clouds. Beyond the question of what is right and what is wrong is a hidden worldview that is less understood and yet speaks to our modern times.

Ilocano folk healers are specialists. There are those who specialize in gynecological folk treatment, sprains and dislocations, and then there are the privileged few with supernatural powers who cure snake and dog bites. Called "mannuma," they channel the spirits through a stone, accurately depicted in the film, which tells how far the venom has traveled in the bloodstream. Mabuti's sanctuary after all is not completely verdant; the hills are mostly denuded and the people not all that free from toxicity. For one, we are suspicious of the village captain and all that maddening coin-counting in his office. Civilians are caught between an armed conflict. There is indolence. And dogbites. And then there is death. And more dogbites. Mabuti, like all mannumas, can never charge payment and can only accept tokens and gifts. And so what to do with this bag of cash? In a nation rocked by war and corruption, what money does to Mabuti and what she does with it can provide a critical if not interesting parable to our times.

De Guzman's tale, like Diablo and Of Skies and Earth, is once again grounded in masterful folk telling and local knowledge. It is charged with mystery and yet carefully paced. What I love about Mes de Guzman's body of work, all set in Nueva Vizcaya, is how, in exploring moral questions, he combines the timeless to the temporal, the sacred to the secular, the heavenly to the mundane (Mabuti's grand-daughter is named Kate Winslett). It is a perfect material for world-class actress Nora Aunor whose flowing career has taken the qualities of a river. From the sand dunes of Ilocos to the water-borne Badjaos of Tawi-Tawi, she is the complete vessel that transports us through our diverse landscapes and languages, the unseen realms of marginalized voices. In Mabuti, the actress does not hide the real scars on her throat that has silenced her singing voice. And it is with this shared silence that she gathers us all to experience a quiet understanding of ourselves. You touch the river of her body of work and you touch the mystery of distance and source. From waters to spiritual peaks, what more can you ask from a people's artist?


A Simple Review of the Film “Ang Kwento ni Mabuti”

By Alvin Dela Cruz Bernardino
and The Artistry of Nora Aunor 

                                                                                                                          - Filmmaker Mes De Guzman 

 Much has been said about the merits of “Ang Kwento ni Mabuti”… All of which asserting the old adage that indeed “simplicity is beauty”… After almost a week of very successful screenings at the 1st Cine Filipino Film Festival, the awards were revealed and the movie savored a solid major romp with the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay honors… Well deserved… But how about the Best Lead Actress?

As I watched “Ang Kwento ni Mabuti” during its gala screening last weekend, I momentarily “detached” myself from the reality that I am a firm believer of the Nora Aunor brand of artistry. I viewed the entire film with sheer objectiveness and a huge expectation of a fresh approach in Filipino filmmaking. True enough, the film is a glittering gem -- a cinematic achievement that screams “brilliance” in all its simplicity and silence. The Filipino ideology is very much evident in the film’s narrative… The regional flavor provided by the poetic, sublime landscapes and rural charm of Sitio Kasinggan in Nueva Vizcaya is just breathtaking… The morality theme is appropriately emphasized without being preachy or self-righteous… The film succeeds in imparting a strong message by challenging the viewers’ minds in a subtle, intelligent manner… Most importantly, the film has universal appeal. A third world fare that does not blatantly present or condemn poverty but makes the world realize that in the midst of an impoverished life situation, hope, still, is what keeps us afloat.

Mes De Guzman’s direction is deft, keen and straightforward. His style best suits cineastes who go for art films which ordinary moviegoers may find boring or dragging. Now I am adding Mes to my list of favorite local filmmakers. And I am looking forward to his next film project. His screenplay is absolutely effective, natural-flowing and devoid of any cinematic excesses that we often observe in local flicks. The Ilocano dialogue is sweet, charming and affecting.

Best Picture – check! Best Director – check! Best Screenplay – check! Again, the question: “How about Best Lead Actress?”

Nora Aunor failed to bring home the prize – losing to a 13-year old acting novice who plays a young lesbian in the film “Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita”. The role may be too offbeat and highly challenging for a child that jurors found impressive, amusing, interesting and award-worthy. But she was pitted against the veteran Aunor who, for the first time, played a cheerful, optimistic, Ilocano-speaking folk healer. The Mabuti portrayal may appear too “lightweight” compared to flashy, daring and over-the-top characters that other actors in the field fleshed out, but the real gauge of good acting is: 1) the consistency of a performance, 2) effective characterization and, 3) mastery of the art of being as against the tricks of mere acting. In this respect, Nora Aunor scored a SOLID TRIPLE PUNCH --- and there is more.

Aunor is at her most mature, most consistent and most sincere as a film performer in “Ang Kwento ni Mabuti”. The Mabuti role may be lacking the bravura, high-voltage acting moments that easily please viewers and critics but the challenging and tricky part in playing a simple character is how one sustains its natural development without losing grip of the viewers’ interest and attention. Nora excels in this aspect. Her quiet intensity gradually builds up, simmers and boils just at the desired temperature. A stroke of genius that is neither underdeveloped nor overdone. Nora as Mabuti is a display of sheer mastery in acting and being, oftentimes exhibited in muted magnificence. Hers is a layered performance that does not sag. Hers is an acting expertise that can only be achieved through years of constant adeptness in her craft. Add to this Nora’s highly intuitive nature which sets her apart from other performers. Not even any child performer who manages to shine in just a number of scenes can match the acting virtuosity of Nora Aunor. MATURITY and SENSITIVITY in acting are traits that are not acquired overnight. And maturity, depth and sensitivity become La Aunor in “Ang Kwento ni Mabuti”.

In the words of ace filmmaker Mes De Guzman after his triumph at the 1st Cine Filipino Film Festival awards rites, “THERE IS NO BEST PICTURE AND BEST DIRECTOR WITHOUT NORA AUNOR”. That said it all.

MOVIE REVIEW: Nora Aunor's Ang Kwento ni Mabuti: A simple tale that goes beyond the surface

by Mari-An Santos
September 21, 2013
From the rural landscapes to the computer generated images to the very treatment of the story, Ang Kwento Ni Mabuti reminds me of Zhang Yimou’s films. Not the big, action flicks that like Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but the more quiet, thoughtful ones like Not One Less and The Road Home.
Set in a rural, mountain village in Nueva Vizcaya, the film directed by Mes de Guzman is entirely in Ilocano. Nora Aunor plays the title character who is a farmer, a mother, and a grandmother. She lives with her ailing mother as well as her four granddaughters, while her children are away, working in other parts of the country. Theirs is a very feminist household. In their village hut, everything is right in the world, despite conditions being far from the norm.
The film opens with what seems like a painting of a rural landscape. But it is a scene of daily life with neighbors passing each other on the mountain pass as they go about their business. They exchange greetings, then go on their own. Yet, there is something brewing that keeps us wondering until we go back to the same scene later.
Despite the seemingly romantic countryside, cracks on the surface are slowly revealed as, not surprisingly, there are many financial problems that Mabuti tries to keep to herself and manage on her own. Not only is she a pillar for her family but also the village. A local hilot (village healer), various men and women come to her to ease afflictions. She helps without asking for payment in return. Overall, she is a person who lives up to her name, seemingly beyond reproach.
Yet, de Guzman’s film does not subjugate rural life to city life. In fact, the cinematography highlights the lush beauty of the mountainside as opposed to the dirty streets of the city; the serenity of the village vis-à-vis the confusion of the provincial capital. When Mabuti ventures to Bambang to find redress, she instead brings back with her conflict. The film also touches on rebellion and crime that shatters their very delicate existence.
Mabuti suffers a crisis of conscience after she comes upon a bag of money—millions of pesos, at that. She is torn between surrendering it to the authorities and using it to solve the problems that her family faces. Every painful step, the audience takes with her.
The setting and elements of nature are also characters in the movie. It may be a revelation to audiences in the city about just how difficult daily commute can be for people who live in the villages: from long, precarious paths to jeepneys and buses breaking down. 

Mabuti is the Everyman, making ends meet and subsisting in a world that is ever-changing and somehow, she cannot keep up.
The character of the village captain exudes a caring, benevolent persona. However, behind closed doors, we find out that he runs the local illegal gambling operation. Also behind closed doors, the elderly women, Mabuti and her mother, hide their discussions about what to do with the money.
Nora Aunor is flawless as the lead character. It is in the quiet moments without dialogue that her face reflects, at different times: joy, anguish, masked frustration, and utter pain on her face. She has truly mastered the art of acting, not only with her eyes or facial expressions but even with her gestures and gait.

Arnold Reyes, as Mabuti’s wayward son, admirably avoids playing a stereotype. Mara Lopez shows a depth beyond her youth as a single mother who yearns for love. Sue Prado as the desperate mother Nelia is haunting. So much so that despite her limited time onscreen, she leaves an indelible mark until the end. Ronald Caranza, as the source of comic relief, displays excellent comic timing. Ama Quaimbao’s single scene will live in memory as her last film, and she is resplendent in her cameo.

The revelations in Ang Kwento ni Mabuti are so low-key that if you blink, you might miss them. The characters are well-rounded, despite not delving on each one’s history, we understand their motivations and their actions. We empathize with their plight because they are common people.
Belief in fate and signs, more prevalent as they are in the countryside, also figure in the film. From mist to rain, swarms of insects, sunshine, and other natural occurrences that some may say are coincidences, but to which ancient wisdom will give more credence. 

By the end of the story, it is indeed difficult not to believe in fate, as it certainly directs the lives of Mabuti and her family.

Ang Kwento ni Mabuti is one of the entries in the 1st CineFilipino Film Festival, which runs untilSeptember 24, 2013. Moviegoers can watch at Newport Cinemas at Resorts World Manila, Lucky Chinatown Mall and Gateway Cineplex. Entries will also be screened at the Shang Cineplex, Shangri-la Plaza Mall from September 21-22.