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.