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?