By JONATHAN CATUNAO
Movie Review: ANG KUWENTO NI MABUTI
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.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
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.
MABUTI’S WEAK PREMISE
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.
A WOMAN OF VIRTUES
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’.
BUT IS SHE REALLY THE BEST ACTRESS?
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.