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.